Theater Brew: The Drowning Girls
I don’t love Zoom Theater. I still watch it because I love my local theaters and want to support them, but it’s a different art form than Live Theater. It tends to lack that immersive immediacy you get when you’re in the same room, breathing the same air. At least that’s what I thought until I streamed the regional premiere of The Drowning Girls, playing through March 7 at the Strand Theater, online location.
I won’t pretend that streaming The Drowning Girls is exactly like live theater, but the way it is presented bridges that time/space divide better than most. Filmed live onstage, with creative cinematography and editing by bona fide local treasure Glenn Ricci, The Drowning Girls stream brings you into the experience by taking you onto and around the stage in ways that would not happen in a typical in-person performance. At least not without you being escorted from the building.
Penned by Canadians Beth Graham, Daniela Vlaskalic, and Charlie Tomlinson, The Drowning Girls tells the ripped-from-the-(1915)-headlines true crime story of “The Brides in the Bath Murders.” There was a bigamist serial killer at the turn of the last century, a con man whose swindle of choice was marrying vulnerable women and taking their money. He did this eight times and may have continued his confidence game longer, but toward the end he started killing the wives. In bathtubs. One of the primary reasons this case became famous was because someone noticed the pattern; it is significant in the history of forensic pathology. Many accounts of the case, in fact, spend significantly more time discussing the sleuthing of Detective Inspector Arthur Neil than they do providing information about the victims.
This incomplete telling of history is part of why The Drowning Girls exists. It names these forgotten women and, in recounting their stories, reminds us that society has sadly not yet evolved past misogyny, abuse, and murder. I’d spend a while telling you all the reasons the substance of the play are important and timely, but Director Emilie Zelle Holmstock does it so beautifully in her Director’s Note, I’ll refer you there. In part, Holmstock writes:
“The Drowning Girls is a ghost story, yes, but it is also a memorium. It raises the voices of these three womxn lost to history – still today at rest in unmarked graves – and propels them to the forefront. They are no longer just the ‘Brides in the Bathtub,’ relegated to a collective, but their beautiful individual selves, and I hope we make them proud. Beatrice Constance Annie Mundy. Alice Burnham. Margaret Elizabeth Lofty. Their story echoes.”
What Glenn Ricci’s video production skill and the as-always spot-on sound design by Heiko Spieker bring to your favorite screen is a beautifully-crafted production from top to bottom. Set Designers and Scenic Artists Emilie Holmstock, David Shoemaker, and Mika J. Nakano have created an otherworldly, underwater netherspace housing three vintage clawfoot tubs that are simultaneously crime scenes and portals to purgatory. One by one, the soggy brides rise from the waters of memory and share their stories.
Acacia Danielson, as Bessie Mundy, and Betse Lyons, as Margaret Lofty, each give moving performances as women tricked and slain by a man who went by numerous aliases, none of which you need to remember. Danielson’s energy and accent acrobatics are particularly impressive, as is Lyons’s vulnerability as a bride saved from spinsterism only to be gaslighted then murdered after being married a single day.
Mika J. Nakano portrays Alice Burnham – wife number six, murder victim number two – who married whatshisname at age 25 over the objection of her parents, who sadly turned out to be good judges of character. Nakano’s dreamlike performance is excellent, as is her work as a scenic artist and creator of the lovely graphic design for the program and promotional material.
This type of production – creatives filmed in person, with a small cast and careful health and safety policies – makes a lot of sense while we wait for widespread vaccinations and a return to being able to safely gather. The design of the stage, set, and choreography for this Strand offering invisibly integrated Covid-precautions into the production. The brides remain in or near the bathtubs in which they were killed throughout the play, but it felt completely natural. It demonstrates that choosing the right show and being mindful in its production can yield a result that ticks off many boxes on the Live Theater Experience checklist while keeping everyone safe.
The Drowning Girls, streaming from the Strand Theater, is a creatively filmed performance that successfully bridges the gap often left by “Zoom theater” and provides a theatrical experience with the kind of immediacy and emotion you typically only feel in person. Stream it weekends through March 7.
The Drowning Girls Facts
Content Warning: Violence against womxn, abuse, gaslighting, misogyny, serial murder
Tickets are $20 general admission, $10 for students, seniors, and artists.
All performances take place virtually—viewing links will be provided following ticket purchases.
Tickets are available here.
Directed by Emilie Zelle Holmstock; Cast: Acacia Danielson, Betse Lyons, Mika J. Nakano, Cristina Sanchez (u/s); Stage Manager Jennifer Smith; Graphic Designer Mika J Nakano; Costume Designer Maggie Flanigan; Set Designers Emilie Holmstock and David Shoemaker; Scenic Artists Emilie Holmstock and Mika J Nakano; Lighting Designer TJ Lukacsina; Sound Designer Heiko Spieker; Video Producer Glenn Ricci; Safety/Intimacy Choreographer Mallory Shear; Props Designer Jennifer Swisko Beck; Producer/Executive Director Elena Kostakis; Associate Artistic Director Erin Riley.
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