On March 20, 1973, Charles Goodrich, handsome, arrogant and rich, told Katherine Stoddard – who had believed, to that point, that they were man and wife – that their marriage was a fraud, that he was going to marry another woman, and that she needed to leave the premises which she had previously thought was her home. She replied by shooting him in the head, three times. Good for her!
But, of course, there’s more to the story, and in No. 731 Degraw-street, Brooklyn, Claudia Barnett excavates, and adds to, the past. In Barnett’s telling, Katherine (Ann Fraistat) is a shape-shifter given to verse. She improvises her history on the spot, and changes names with the same ease and facility as she changes her hats. She is Kate, she is Betty, she is Amy, she is Minnie; it is all and one for her. She delivers her pronouncements in cryptic little poems, and she hints that she is the sister of a certain reclusive New England poet.
Ah, that. The play’s alternate title is Emily Dickinson’s Sister, and the verse Kate seems to improvise are in fact Dickinson poems. Barnett here means to invoke Virginia Woolf, who imagined that Shakespeare had a sister who was as gifted as he but, because she was a woman, was unable to share in the glory which the Bard earned. But the comparison falls short on multiple grounds; Dickinson, unlike Shakespeare, lived a cramped, miserable life and hoped that her poems would be burned upon her death, and Stoddard’s path to glory was stymied not by her gender but by her bad choices, and by the fact that she shot a guy in the head.
Though the metaphor fails, the story is a success. During the first Act, we wander back in time, and as each scene takes us further back, Kate, or whatever she is calling herself (her real name was Lizzie King) frolics and chortles in increasingly cheery manic madness. Fraistat is marvelous at this; you are compelled to think that this is what Ophelia would have been like, had she survived her dunking and had a better sense of humor.
Matthew Marcus’ Goodrich is all dead eyes and flat affect, and he seems so disengaged that you might think it is a shortcoming of the actor. I did at first, but then I remembered Filipe Cabezas’ portrayal of the serial marryer and (now it can be told) serial murderer George Love in Washington Stage Guild’s Tryst. His Love, when he was not trying to seduce, was loaded with indifference and contempt – a machine on top of an animal. Marcus portrays Goodrich in this same way, and by the third scene you are ready to shoot him yourself, if you have brought your firearm to the play. (NOTE: DCTS advises against bringing firearms to plays.)
The business of the first Act, then, is to bring us to a place where the climactic scene – the murder which begins the play – makes sense. It succeeds, and is a fun ride as well. The second Act, which traces the aftermath of the murder and Kate’s eventual fate, doesn’t work quite as effectively. For one thing, Kate, deep in the grip of her delusions, is incapable of outmaneuvering the police, and so must depend on their stupidity to escape. For another, having seen that Kate cannot deal with the world, we almost hope for her capture, and for the unsuitable protection of the State. Thus the tension and suspense usually attendant after a crime is absent here.
No. 731 Degraw-Street, Brooklyn
Closes December 1, 2013
Venus Play Shack
21 C Street
2 hours with 1 intermission
Thursdays thru Sundays
Director Randall moves things along with great dispatch, compressing the ponderous details of the murder’s aftermath (all of which Barnett sets forth faithfully) into forty-five crisp minutes. Fraistat, now playing a character completely unmoored from reality, adds a little indignation to Kate’s character, as though all the nonsense she proclaims should be perfectly clear to everyone, and she doesn’t understand why it is not. It is fascinating to watch, as train wrecks and Congressional hearings are fascinating to watch.
By the way, interested in what happened to the real Lizzie King? She was captured; she confessed and was indicted, but the courts determined that she was mentally unfit to stand trial, and she was committed to an institute for the insane in Auburn, New York. After that the historical record grows cloudy; she may have been eventually released, and thereafter moved to Chicago and married, or she may have died there. Less than a month after the murder, outraged residents of Degraw Street petitioned to have it renamed Lincoln Place, and by April 15 the Brooklyn Common Council (Brooklyn was an independent City back then) did so. The house where the murder took place recently sold for $1.6 million.
No. 731 Degraw-street, Brooklyn or Emily Dickinson’s Sister by Claudia Barnett . Directed by Deborah Randal l. Featuring Ann Fraistat, Matthew Marcus, Amy Rhodes (who also designed the set) and Deborah Randall (who was responsible for costumes and props). Lighting Design: Kristin Thompson . Sound Design: Neil McFadden . Fight Choreography: Paul Gallagher . Produced by Venus Theatre . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.