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Dead ringer

Wooden Breeks juggles dark comedy and Gothic chills

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Lovemaking and undertaking are both major elements in Actor's Express' The Wooden Breeks, but in its simplest terms, the play is the tale of a quirky town. It unfolds as a hearthside story told by a cynical tinker (Theo Harness) to a much-abused orphan boy (Andrew Bracken), who find themselves both audience and participants in the tale's telling. The narrative self-consciousness is just one of The Wooden Breeks' heady, ambitious touches, not all of which catches fire.

Playwright Glen Berger places the action in Brood, a benighted British village populated by Dickensian archetypes. Its citizens include a mousy vicar (Bill Murphey) desperately in love with a perpetually mourning widow (Joanna Daniel) who has a comic fascination with suicide. The town's bullying gravedigger (Matt Stanton) moonlights as a grave robber who wears the finery of the disinterred, while a pair of facile lovers (Jessie Andary and Nathan Mobley) coos romantic trifles at one another.

Things are bad in Brood in the best of times, but they get worse when the poverty-stricken town gets caught up in the 19th-century phobia of premature burial. The fear is stoked as a ploy to sell special coffins outfitted with bells to be rung by "corpses" who are not quite dead yet. The townsfolk are shocked to learn that the coffin saleslady, Miss Spoon (Jennifer Crumbley-Bonder), is a dead ringer -- pun intended -- for the orphan's late mother.

Miss Spoon's strongest and strangest sales pitch is to the lighthouse-keeper (Daniel May), a young scholar who never sleeps or goes outdoors and spends all his time with his books. But Miss Spoon begins sending him beguiling letters that inject sex into his scholarship and derail his train of thought.

Actor's Express is co-producing The Wooden Breeks' world premiere with Perseverance Theatre of Juneau, Alaska, where the productions have different actors but share Director Wier Harman and other behind-the-scenes artists. The set by Perseverance's Art Rotch features a delightful element -- the part of the stage representing the lighthouse is surrounded by books and is encircled by the lighthouse-keeper's endless scarf, an aesthetic akin to Roald Dahl or Tim Burton. The rest of the set, unfortunately, is simple, light-colored wood that stands in for multiple locations, and is so new and varnished-looking, it contradicts the Gothic atmosphere of the starving hamlet.

Breeks' ensemble is funny and lively, with Harness grounding his role in a cagey world-weariness and May showing a remarkable verbal felicity as Latin words spill from the besotted scholar's lips. But all of the play's characters are either fools or rascals, and amusing though the performances may be, it's hard to invest much emotional stake in their actions.

In the second act the playwright intriguingly starts overlapping his symbols, and at one point characters are trying to either get into or out of a grave, a hope chest, a lighthouse, a poor box and a strong box locked by the five-letter answer to a riddle. But instead of neatly tying the play's threads together, Breeks builds to a drawn-out, difficult resolution hinging on the notion that one of the characters is a ghost. A late, long dialogue, at times in total darkness, might speak to the heart of the play's ideas about the bonds between the living and the dead, but it's a slog to decode.

The title draws on an obsolete slang term for a coffin, and Berger employs songs, rhymed verse and antiquated turns of phrase reminiscent of Naomi Wallace or Caryl Churchill. A complex work of worthy ambition, The Wooden Breeks attempts much with its poetry and theatricality, but at times the grasp is not equal to the reach.

The Wooden Breeks plays through May 10 at Actor's Express, King Plow Art Center, 887 W. Marietta St. Thurs.-Sat. at 8 p.m. Sun. times vary. $20-$25. 404-607-7469. www.actorsexpress.com.

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