Playing Marital and Mortal Odds: 13 DEAD HUSBANDS at Cohesion

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Playing Marital and Mortal Odds: 13 Dead Husbands at Cohesion

Cassandra Dutt and Matt Payne, with Sean James and Nick Delaney

Cassandra Dutt and Matt Payne, with Sean James and Nick Delaney

Posted on March 14, 2015

If charming and silly are your thing, you’ll have fun at Thirteen Dead Husbands by Tom Horan, making its appearance in Baltimore courtesy of Cohesion Theatre Company, a new fringe or (as the program seems to call it) a new DIY group in Baltimore. The play, which premiered in Chicago in 2008, is set in “a Paris of the Imagination” that seems more like the French countryside, centers around Dee-Dee (Cassandra Dutt) the “most beautiful girl in the world,” whose stunning looks come with a serious drawback. The drawback: You marry her, you die promptly of some kind of unpredictable catastrophe (collapsing buildings, shipwreck, being torn apart by wild animals). When the action starts, she has already been widowed twelve times, and has a trunk-full of wedding dresses to prove it.

The question then becomes what kind of man would now seek Dee-Dee’s hand, and what are his chances (of matrimony, and if so, of survival) if he does? Three candidates appear: Hubert Q. Hubble (Thom Sinn), a Rupert Murdoch-like press magnate with a fondness for cigars and an ego like Donald Trump’s; Marcel C’est La Vie (Matt Payne), a student of Sartre whose imperturbable but unearned attitude of superiority and godawful French accent put one greatly in mind of Inspector Clouseau; and Jean-Pierre (Bobby Henneberg), a schlubby balloon-vendor who is the only regular guy in the bunch. I will not give away more of the plot except to say that true love triumphs at the end – and that in the meantime the audience will be subjected to more whimsy than they have seen since their last time sitting through The Fantasticks or almost anything by Jean Giraudoux.

Among the whimsical accouterments of the show are a series of portraits of some of Dee-Dee’s deceased dozen that come to life behind their frames, argue amongst each other and with Dee-Dee, as they try to determine how she should navigate the matrimonial rapids ahead. There is also a great deal of incidental music presented by a duo calling themself The Napoleon Complex wearing sailor-ish striped blouses like refugees from a picnic painted by Manet, and berets (lest anyone possibly miss the joke). The Napoleon Complex seem to be alter egos of Music Director Nick Delaney and company co-founder Alicia Stanley, but I leave that issue to be ascertained by the audience.

Despite the charming, agreeable script, and game, enthusiastic actors, there are some aspects of the show that audience members may find rough sledding. After being suddenly displaced from the venue in which they had anticipated putting on their show, Cohesion has taken up quarters, at least temporarily, in The Church on the Square, on O’Donnell Square, and from an acoustic point of view, that is not good news. Churches by design have completely different sound profiles from theaters. (I point to the late lamented Baltimore Shakespeare Festival’s church-bound efforts to declaim the Bard’s language, or for that matter that of the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory at Old St. Paul’s, as cautionary tales in point.) An acting troupe trying to put a show on in a church and not making major adjustments to make sure each word is heard distinctly may have its lines lost in the sonic backwash; that happened a lot here, and it was even more pronounced with the music.

Another auditory challenge came from the two male principals, Bobby Henneberg and Matt Payne. They lay on the Clouseau accents thick. This is not at odds with the artistic conception; I saw a YouTube video preview of the original production, and there was the Clouseau-speak back then in 2008. But Peter Sellers knew how to keep the weird-sounding speech comprehensible. Henneberg and Payne frequently lose our ears by trying too hard. That said, I’d hate to lose Payne’s portrayal of the slightly insane Marcel. He is a natural comedian, and the fractured language, coupled with his only-half-sane glares, his mugging, and his wild gesticulation are all of a piece.

Dutt is the other standout. Recently seen as an ingenue-ish writing student not above making mercenary use of her looks in Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar at nearby Fells Point Corner Theatre, she serves up a delightful variation on the theme here, alternately wheedling presents and affection out of suitors, and then trying to rise above the rote repetition of somewhat meaningless and heartless courtship. The point seems to be that all courtships are at heart as dead as hers have ended up being until there is something that takes one out of one’s narcissistic self. Dutt puts the point across well.

Company co-founder Brad Norris’s direction is lively, and keeps the fun going; I would only caution against taking up too much time with the musical interludes.

As for Cohesion itself, they seem totally undiscouraged by the forced move, which is a good thing. To succeed in Baltimore, a theater company must be prepared for the peripatetic life. Even Center Stage, the tentpole of the local theater scene, has had to move twice unexpectedly en route to becoming the state theater of Maryland; Chesapeake Shakespeare Company spent years in the wilderness; Single Carrot Theatre, probably Cohesion’s closest spiritual relative, got bounced a couple of years back from the space it had been calling home. Setting down roots while moving around can be done. If Cohesion can make it through the shakedown cruise, it may end up as permanent as the companies I have mentioned. One certainly hopes it will.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo by Shaelyn Jae Photography

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