Rhapsody in Blood

Peruse just a handful of the estimated 190 titles from American playwright Don Nigro's canon--Dead Men's Fingers, Boneyard, Lucia Mad, Nightmare With Clocks--and you can't help but think the 50-year-old writer must possess the complete collection of Goth queen Diamanda Gallas' musical ravings, if not a few original Edward Gorey lithographs. Nigro's plays, mostly mystery-dramas with heavy comic touches embroidered on the surface, have been produced in all but two states and every major European country, allowing him to support himself in the theater but be "neither rich nor famous." In various interviews, he generally decries contemporary American plays as featuring "drab storytelling and flat language" and hails instead the adulation of spoken language championed by young Irish playwrights as well as the serene façades hiding twisted motives in Restoration dramas. These sentiments pretty much explain the composition of the typical Nigro stage exercise--ornate rhapsodizing about mysterious human nature during pauses between unlikely, sometimes unnecessary curves in a blood-stained plot line.

Twenty of his scripts are dedicated to chronicling the Welsh Pendragon family, who emigrate to America in the 1700s and build a huge home in Ohio full of underground corridors and hidden rooms. "An objective correlative for the nightmare labyrinth of their family history," Nigro claims, "which is complex, tortured, and bizarre, to say the least." When you consider that Nigro himself is an Ohio native, a state not generally associated with ominous and ghastly criminal goings-on, you realize you're dealing with a pathological Europhile, a man who senses the dearth of sinister historical resentments in an America that erases its past too fast to allow interesting grudges to flower into homicidal family conspiracies.

Although not part of the Pendragon cycle, his verbose comic thriller Ravenscroft would fit effortlessly into that chronicle if you merely changed the surname of the secretive clan involved in nefarious deeds inside its secluded mansion. Such interchangeability suggests that you'll have a much better time if you don't take Nigro's prolific crimson preoccupations too seriously and if you're rewarded with the wonderfully, playfully sly ensemble that director Terry Martin has assembled for WaterTower Theatre's production.

Actually, you half-suspect that Nigro is taking time off from grimly dipping his quill in blood to make fun of the whole house-full-of-murder-suspects-trapped-together scenario that reached its apex with Agatha Christie's 1944 play Ten Little Indians. After a first act dedicated to accumulating some fairly eerie details about ghost sightings that occur before two deaths, Ravenscroft veers into a silly but high-spirited competition for blame among the characters.

Set designer Clare DeVries and lighting designer Jeff Stover have gone for a shadowy, mostly empty mansion-for-sale look that works quite nicely for a turn-of-the-century rural English home whose residents seem to live half-lives there. The Ravenscroft family and staff wait in high-backed chairs, staring spectrally into the darkness until it's their turn to be interrogated. The household is entirely female and wholly tightlipped about the recent fatal tumble that a randy groundsman took down the long curving staircase; their gender and reticence make the job of Inspector Ruffing (Bill Jenkins), gallant to the point of squeamishness, so much more trying. He has traveled through an increasingly nasty snowstorm to interview the widowed, unemotional, and pragmatic Mrs. Ravenscroft (Kelly Cole); her flirtatious and deceptively spacey daughter Gillian (Amanda Denton), given to tall tales and possibly schizophrenic hallucinations; icy and impatient governess Marcy (Rachel Kelly); and the kitchen staff, cockney senior cook Mrs. French (Cindy Beall) and nervous underling Dolly (Stacy Oristano). Initially, Marcy admits that the victim fell from the top of the stairs after he attacked her in a drunken, dishonorable bid for her virtue. Eventually, and not unexpectedly, more and more scandalous tidbits are dropped about the groundsman's relationship with various members of the house. When Inspector Ruffing must contend with a ghost story about a woman in white who haunts the staircase and the growing suspicion that all suspects may be covering for the one guilty party, he and the play itself begin to crumble under the weight of so many possibilities.

Director Terry Martin has taken delicious dramatic and comic advantage of the five women vs. one man equation in Ravenscroft. By the time Jenkins as Ruffing declares that you can't trust anything a woman says, his consummate quintet of co-stars has already lifted the interlocked deceptions into a kind of strangling, supernatural aura that permeates the mansion. Dipped so deeply into their contradictory and outlandish accounts, he can no longer trust anything he sees and hears. For the first act, Jenkins is essentially their foil, a straight man, but he seems to relish the job, since there's nary a crack in any of their characterizations. By the time they've massed together onstage to tussle with the drunken and frustrated inspector, they resemble exotic, multicolored birds who've flocked together merely to sink their talons into Ruffing. They all deserve an ovation, but special appreciation goes to the young Amanda Denton, who takes what is too often an annoying stock type--the predrowned Ophelia, a teen-ager whose continued childhood fantasies have soured into madness--and invests it with a menace barely covered by all that flouncing, high-voiced giggliness.

Rachel Kelly as the steely Marcy is simply marvelous at slowly lifting the hem of her skirt, so to speak, to reveal more and more personal trauma as the show progresses. Her final invitation to Inspector Ruffing as the lights slowly dim is a baleful hint at a catastrophe the audience will never see. It almost repairs the fatuous "solution" to the groundsman's death that, while amusing, ties up all previous threads with a sloppy comic haste that director Martin has unfortunately chosen to accentuate with some slapstick physical fights.

Ravenscroft flies high on the wings of pure performance authenticity, but if you're a mystery fan rather than a regular theatergoer, you'll probably best enjoy it as a satire of the decaying-ancestral-home branch of that genre. This will allow you to be more forgiving as the playwright loses control and starts to become constricted by his characters' web of lies.