Genesis Theater Co.

at Voltaire 2

It took New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson just four words to sum up the plot of Christopher Fry’s A Phoenix Too Frequent when he reviewed the play’s (and the British playwright’s) Broadway debut in 1950: “Lovely widow: healthy corporal.”

If the story was timeworn when Fry wrote it in 1946, the passage of almost 40 years has done nothing to make it fresher. Boy meets girl, boy almost loses girl, boy gets girl. In a time when “meeting cute” was almost a requirement of love stories on stage and screen, the initial encounter between the lovers-to-be was a little offbeat–but only because Fry had lifted his plot from Petronius, that ancient master of black comedy and the author of the Satyricon.

Tegeus, a handsome young officer in the Roman army, leaves his post–where he is guarding the dead bodies of criminals to prevent their families from burying them–to investigate the voices he hears coming from a nearby mausoleum. The voices are those of two women–the lady Dynamene and her servant Doto, who have entombed themselves with the corpse of Dynamene’s husband Virilius, an imperial bureaucrat. The women are starving themselves to death so they may accompany Virilius across the River Styx to the land of the dead.

Though Dynamene at first mistakes the black-clad Tegeus for a messenger from Hades, the soldier soon revives the women’s spirits with his pretty eyes, well-cut uniform, and handy bottle of wine. Doto makes her move first, but when Tegeus fails to respond she settles for the liquor and the sleep it brings; then Tegeus begins to woo the beautiful and bereaved Dynamene.

Propping up this not exactly suspenseful story is a script written in the verse style that was Fry’s specialty in the 1940s and ’50s. The genre of verse drama (Fry’s The Lady’s Not for Burning and Maxwell Anderson’s Elizabeth the Queen are other well-known entries in the field) has long since died out, and Fry’s self-consciously whimsical dialogue, with its classical references and bawdy puns, does more to date the play than its centuries-old plot does. Fry is indeed just about the last playwright I’d have expected to see a youthful company like Genesis Theater produce in a vanguard space like Cafe Voltaire (recently relocated from the Clybourn corridor to a former disco in Lakeview). Yet not only has Genesis revived the play, it’s done a pretty good job; and for all its potential preciousness, Fry’s script drew a fair amount of laughs from the mostly under-30 audience at the performance I attended.

The reason, I think, is that director Christopher Cartmill has his cast play the poetry not with mannered irony but with a nervously reserved delivery that recalls the rock style of Talking Heads and their ilk. The rather whiny Dynamene (Liane Davidson), the gawky Doto (Adrianne Krstansky), and the boyishly eager Tegeus (James Marsters) are three recognizable kids trying, with laughable inadequacy, to measure up to the responsibilities society has imposed on them. Dynamene’s duty to her dead husband, Doto’s duty to her mistress, and Tegeus’s duty to the state gradually and amusingly fall by the wayside, as love emerges out of death like a phoenix rising out of its own ashes. But because the actors play against the classical formality of this theme, their high-styled speech seems less cumbersome than quirky–it’s part of what makes them funny, and even a bit endearing, though the one-act play does go on a bit too long.

Cartmill, whose own drama Incorruptible, at Bailiwick Repertory, relied heavily on live music and theatrically stylized design, employs those same elements here to good, if limited, effect. Violinist Jan Gieger and soprano Sarah Worthington set the mood with a preshow concert of music by Wolf and Faure; the potential impact is diluted by the violinist’s intonation problems and the singer’s alarmingly broad vocal wobble, but their presence strikes a darkly comic resonance. Set designer Gregory Musick and lighting designer Cliff Vick have transformed Cafe Voltaire’s low-ceilinged, stone-walled basement space (a former video lounge) into a tomblike setting that, while not particularly convincing, encourages the audience’s receptiveness to the playfully artificial quality that makes Fry’s play probably more intriguing now than it was when it was new.