When I was in grad school, I went to a party that was absolutely packed—but the lights were shining bright all night, people ended up sitting in conversation circles on the floor, the only thing to eat was giant cookies, and the only thing to drink was hot toddy, which quickly ran out. It was at that event that I had what remains my sole experience drinking absinthe (someone had picked up a bottle while doing dissertation research in Europe), but it was impossible to tell whether the subsequent feelings of horror were due to the licorice-flavored tipple or simply to the situation’s overwhelming awkwardness.
|wormwood, playing through may 21 at the bryant-lake bowl. for tickets ($14-$18) and information, see bryantlakebowl.com.|
In the 120 years since Marie Corelli published her novel Wormwood: A Drama of Paris, absinthe has become the campiest of spirits. Like all spirits, though, it’s driven plenty of men to ruin—among them the fictional Gaston Beauvais (Joey Ford), the central character of Wormwood. Condensing to a 75-minute script what was originally an 800-page manuscript, Hardcover Theater’s production tells the story of Beauvais’s absinthe-fueled decline from banker with a future to…well, suffice it to say he’s brought low. In getting the Shrinky Dink treatment from writer/director Steve Schroer, the story’s context is stripped and its melodrama accelerated, with Ford literally spinning across the stage as he makes a series of poor choices at the behest of a green fairy (Kristin Foster) who represents the spirit of the spirits—kind of like a sexy version of the Bad Idea Bears from Avenue Q. (Costumed by Sara Wilcox in glitter, a pair of flats, and layers of vintage clothing, Foster fits in all too well among the teasingly intoxicating seductresses of Uptown.)
John Adler’s sets are minimal, and the hallucinatory interludes are signaled by little more than a bathing of the stage in green light, so the production leans heavily on the actors to set and maintain its faux-cautionary tone. With impressive discipline (especially on the part of Katharine Moeller as one of the women Beauvais disappoints) and energy (especially by Shad Cooper in the dual role of an optimistic priest and an absinthe-addled artist), the cast carries the tale to its tragic end. Onstage for the play’s duration is the maniacally sincere Ricky Carlson, taking a number of small roles and leading whoever happens to be offstage in periodic sing-song phrases that repeat significant lines of dialogue in a manner that underlines the irony of the entire enterprise—as though, being at the BLB and watching a play about the dangers of absinthe, we didn’t get it already.
Wormwood was the first Hardcover show I’ve seen, but on the evidence of this show and what I’ve heard about previous productions, the closest analogue I can come up with for what the company does with pulpy novels of yesteryear is the treatment garage-rockers the Detroit Cobras give forgotten R&B chestnuts—they take material that isn’t anything particularly special but gave a lot of people a lot of entertainment back in the day, and reanimate it with affection and high spirits. It’s a little nerdy, and a lot of fun.