Thirst: a spell for Christabel
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
March 13, 2009
Loosely based on Samuel Taylor Coleridge's unfinished poem "Christabel," Monika Bustamante's Thirst builds a dark fable on the poem's setting—a dark and vaguely medieval wood—and its half-told story of a young girl who finds a beautiful, mysterious, and ultimately somehow sinister woman abandoned in those woods.
Here, rather than a nobleman and his daughter, Leo and Christabel are hardscrabble peasants, eking a living for years out of woodcutting and foraging and sap produced from their maple forest. Leo goes to town once a year to trade; Christabel has never left their woodland refuge. But slowly, all their neighbors have abandoned the land for the far-off city; by the time the play starts, Christabel and Leo are alone in their wood, and the wood is in the grip of a powerful drought. Christabel spends her days hunting for stray berries in the woods; Leo drinks too much, obsessively builds model ships, and has secretly been building an ark in the woods on which he can, when all else fails, send Christabel away.
Their way of life is about to end, one way or another, when Christabel finds Enid in the woods, claiming to be the victim of an assault by five men, and miles away from home. Christabel vows to get Enid back to her homeland—but when Enid enters Christabel's home, she instead coils herself into Christabel's life, first seducing Christabel, and then, while Christabel lies in an inexplicable charmed sleep for days, insinuating her way into Leo's heart, supplanting his long-dead wife. Christabel and her father have a painful fight over Leo's plan to leave with Enid and bring her back to her own father across the sea. After Leo and Enid's departure, Christabel and her dog are left alone in the drought-ridden, dying landscape; even the sugar maples are withering and falling, and all she can do is wait for her father to return, or for it to rain at last.
The story has a lovely, dark fairy-tale quality, and many of the details are richly imagined: the single pitcher of water father and daughter can wring out of the well per day; Leo tapping all the maples at once to provide a current on which his ship can ride to the sea; Enid rummaging in the secret drawer Christabel keeps with her long-lost mother's hairbrush, mirror, and cosmetics. But Bustamante's writing often becomes overwrought and meandering, especially when she's writing monologues; the end of the play gets a little bogged down by long expository monologues describing Christabel's wait for her father's return, Leo's tale of his journey, and Christabel's final escape. Also, neither Lori Funk (as Enid) nor Elizabeth Gross (as Christabel) really seems to find her way into her character. Funk captures Enid's vaguely vampiric creepiness well, but perhaps too well, as I never felt the power drawing either Christabel or Leo to her. Gross seems a little one-note; Christabel's innocence and yearning for a different life are palpable, but any stronger emotions feel forced and false. Matthew Cowles competently portrays the pathos in Leo's story.
Where the production does succeed beautifully is in its stagecraft. Set designer Susan Zeeman Rogers captures both the drabness of Christabel's day-to-day life and the looming power and mystery of the forest and of Enid. The stage is framed with rough, burlap-mesh covered cutouts of trees, and tree silhouettes as a backdrop. But everything hides a secret and a potential for transformation—trees contain drawers and cupboards; Enid emerges from a drawer in a piece of furniture that mutates from a burly kitchen table to a girl's delicate bed—and just when you think all the tricks have been played out, the final scene completely transforms the space yet again. Marrying simplicity with mystery and a touch of stage magic, the play's physical world is more perfectly realized than its storytelling is.