There aren’t a lot of positives in The Plagiarists’ world premiere (and, one hopes, dernière) production of “Poison,” so let’s get them out of the way quickly, before I forget: Emma Cullimore’s costumes are eye-catching and seem faithful to the play’s seventeenth-century Parisian milieu; and Michelle Benda’s lighting is cleverly executed, with many of the lamps consisting of modified bottles and jars, receptacles for the deadly decoctions that are the tools of the poisoner’s trade.
In terms of the people onstage, the things they do and the words they speak, the less said the better. Dusty Wilson’s script is nowhere near ready for prime time, and director Christina Casano doesn’t do the playwright any favors by investing this overwrought costume horror show—a Louis XIV-era “Arsenic and Old Lace”—with spurious intensity, as though it were a major moral statement on the great issues of the day. The real poison at work here isn’t strychnine or hemlock, it’s a dreary self-seriousness that permeates the action, leaching the characters and the play itself of any hint of wit, humor and humanity. Every line sounds bookish and orotund and every emotion is cover for an attitude, generally sulky or resentful.
The four main female characters in this ostensibly feminist play are fixated adolescents, motivated by pique and self-pity and incapable of an ethical or altruistic thought. All are one-note constructs: Marie, a professional poisoner of boundless sanctimoniousness; her client Marguerite, a husband-hating lady of the court who is dumber than dirt; Catherine, her rival assassin, a full-bodied narcissist with hints of Cruella de Vil; and Margot, her lover, who is very naughty and lets us know it, over and over and over again.
Life is good for these designing women, until somebody snitches. The three commoners are then arrested and tried by a state—in the form of a smarmy prosecutor portrayed by the play’s only male performer—that insists on treating mass homicide as a punishable offense, rather than a commendable display of skill and daring.
I’m willing to be open-minded on this point, especially at this moment, as Harvey Weinstein awaits his verdict. Perhaps men as a class are vermin who deserve to be exterminated without a second thought, as this play—with its undeviating sympathy for its prideful, put-upon heroine—appears to suggest. But such a premise should be dramatized, not simply assumed. We never see any of the intended victims and so can’t judge whether they’ve got it coming or are just in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong spouse. Not that there’s any consistent rationale given for the play’s murderous machinations. Reasons trotted out include: the horrors of arranged marriage; the fact that women could not become doctors and so, unable to save lives, they have no choice but to take them; and the paucity of lucrative occupations available to women, especially widowed single mothers like the protagonist. But again, we never see the kids Marie has worked so hard and so lethally to support, so her motivation remains abstract. It’s as dramatically self-defeating as staging Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children” without the children.
Everything is rhetorically keyed up and the performers are constantly Acting, in the hope this will distract the audience from the predictability of the story, the thinness of the characterizations and the many cringe-inducing lines of dialogue, my personal favorite being “Where else will I get my fill of wanton debauchery?” It’s the sort of play where an unhappy wife who wishes to run off with her lover contemplates the offing of her husband with the giggly cheerfulness of a hyperactive kewpie doll, then asks solemnly if having her tarot cards read will endanger her immortal soul. At the play’s action-packed climax, one character attacks another with a feather pen, a weapon that looks about as dangerous as a paper plate.
In a play full of regrettable moments, perhaps the most egregious involves a drunken character barfing (unconvincingly) into a bucket. Plays like this should not have scenes like that. No point giving the audience ideas. (Hugh Iglarsh)
The Plagiarists at Berger Park Coach House, 6205 North Sheridan, theplagiarists.org, Pay what you can, $20 recommended. Through March 14.