The first act of The Wooden Breeks is heavy on exposition, as Berger not only establishes Tom and Wicker's back story but also introduces the characters who live in Brood. There's Jarl von Hoother (T. Ryder Smith), a lighthouse keeper who has never set foot in the outside world; Enry Leap (Steve Mellor), the local vicar; Toom the Stoup (Ron Cephas Jones), a graverobbing gravedigger; Mrs. Nelles (Veanne Cox), a woman still lamenting the loss of her daughter many years before; and two young lovers, Tricity Tiara (Maria Dizzia) and Armitage Shanks (Louis Cancelmi). A salesperson also comes to Brood: Anna Livia Spoon (Reeder), who may or may not be Hetty Grigs. She is peddling a device that safeguards against premature burial by outfitting coffins with a bell mechanism that would allow anyone who is accidentally buried alive to call out for help.
The setup of the play takes longer than it should, but the second act kicks things into high gear with a number of twists and turns in the plot that are both hilarious and deeply disturbing. As Tom spins his tale, he and Wicker become trapped within it. Their ability to escape is intertwined with the fates of the characters in Brood and the mystery surrounding Anna Livia Spoon. Under the capable direction of Trip Cullman, the ensemble cast helps to make even the drier segments of The Wooden Breeks engaging. Cox, for example, employs a strained, slightly affected manner of speech that seems perfect for her character. Smith makes the obsessive/compulsive lighthouse keeper both pitiful and endearing. Reeder exudes confidence, charm, and an air of mystery, while Rothenberg is an engaging storyteller whose maudlin moments are balanced by his emotional investment in the uncertain outcome of his narrative.
The costumes, by Anita Yavich, are marvelously inventive; they have a period look while often literally reflecting the various characters in the tale. Miss Spoon, for instance, has actual silver spoons stitched onto her bodice, while gravedigger Toom has a shovel on his back. The best costume belongs to Cox's Mrs. Nelles, whose black dress incorporates portions of a keg; this reflects her standing as the only person in the town of Brood with a license for selling liquor, which she has refused to do ever since her daughter died. Beowulf Boritt's spare set is dominated by a large, wooden platform that is shifted about. Both Paul Whitaker's lighting and Fitz Patton's original music and sound design help to create an eerie atmosphere that supports the tone of the play.
An engaging mystery story, The Wooden Breeks is also a meditation on love, loss, and memory. Berger's writing is imaginative and often poetic. The playwright has a dark sense of humor that erupts in unexpected places, and a stylistic flair that keeps the play delightfully off-kilter.
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