Stillborn: a bedtime story

The title of Monika Bustamante's 'Stillborn' is no pun but a promise of what is to come: two hours of anger, rape, murder, and stillbirth that is upsetting, dark, and, unfortunately, not illuminating

Arts Review

Stillborn: a bedtime story

Hyde Park Theatre, through Oct. 28

Running Time: 2 hrs

In Shrewd Productions' latest effort, Paul Davis' set design is nothing if not thorough. The moment you walk into the theatre, you get the sickly feeling that all will not be well in this play. The stage is littered with, well, litter. Broken TV antennas, old stuffed animals, unidentifiable fragments, all swimming in a stretch of dirt at the front of the stage. There is a bleeding here – the outdoors into the indoors. The living room with which we are presented does not seem safe or happy.

The feeling is dead on. Dead baby on. The title of the show – Stillborn – is no pun, no play on words. Like the set, it is a promise of what's to come. Two hours of anger, rape, depression, murder, and stillbirth. If that's not your cup of tea, then steer clear of this show. It is dark, it is upsetting, and it is not illuminating.

This piece is well done. Not only the set, but the sound, the lighting, the direction, and the performances do great justice to the text. This group works together to crawl under your skin, to unsettle you from the start. As the piece opens, there is a horrible radio static through which a human voice barely breaks. It's the kind of sound cue that makes you want to beg the sound operator to pull the plug. As it begins, so the play will continue in its attempt to be unrelentingly dark. Unfortunately, dark and cryptic do not automatically add up to interesting.

The play is structured around the convoluted story of four characters: Meredith; Maria, Meredith's older half-sister; Clay, an older man that Meredith befriends; and Cory, Maria's ex-boyfriend. The weight of the show rests on the shoulders of Kathleen Fletcher, who plays Meredith. Her monologues serve as a skeleton for the piece. Fletcher is a young actress, and at times her delivery sounds like delivery. However, she has sweetness for days. Her openness, her immediacy, and her interest in her stage partners make her a joy to watch. She is very capable of doing what this character is designed to do: provide a bit of light in the darkness. Shannon Grounds plays Maria, who is suspicious and sarcastic from the start. Trouble is, the audience has no real idea why and hasn't much reason to care. Another character sums Maria up perfectly when he says, "She doesn't hate us. She's just angry in general." This line gets a huge response from the audience – laughter – and relief because it is one of the first lines that rings true. Grounds skillfully does what the script and the director have asked her to do, but the setup for her character is just plain uncompelling. The two men, Michael Joplin and Paul Mitchell Wright, provide some comic relief and respite from the wallowing. One starts to wonder if Monika Bustamante, the playwright, isn't better at writing male characters than female ones. At least in the world of Stillborn, her male characters are much less internal and much more believable. Wright's Clay and Fletcher's Meredith make up the sympathetic heart of the piece. Clay's backstory also plumbs the depths of tragedy, but in his case, you care. Wright's performance is subtle and pained and lovely.

From the outset, Maria and Meredith are disturbed. The audience is treated to short scene after short scene, each more cryptic than the last. We understand that something is wrong, and we begin to learn why, but the why is never that interesting. Essentially, Maria and Meredith have been messed up by their shared mommy and their respective daddies. Maria has lost her ability to love or be kind whatsoever. Meredith has become a My Little Pony basket case. Eventually, the half-sisters conspire to murder Maria's ex-boyfriend, Cory, whose greatest crime appears to be falling asleep after sex. There is a feigned rape, some prison visits, and an absolutely horrific description of a birth gone bad.

The play never makes clear why it was worth our time to expose ourselves to such angst. Great theatre is often constructed from tragedy, but the tragedy must be compelling. In Stillborn, it is fabricated and fruitless. Clearly Shrewd Productions has some powerful talent. Hopefully their next piece will shed some light on something.

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Stillborn:a bedtime story, Monika Bustamante, Shrewd Productions, Shannon Grounds, Paul Davis, Kathleen Fletcher, Michael Joplin, Paul Mitchell Wright

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