Drowning, Not Sucking

The Drowning Girls performed at  the Warehouse Theatre, February 25, 2011

Reviewed by John Herbert Cunningham

The Tom Hendry  Theatre, otherwise known as The  Warehouse, has developed a  reputation for putting on  unusual plays. So, when  the audience filtered into the theatre they were not overly surprised to find a stage empty except for three antique bathtubs displayed equidistant across the space. What might have caught them a little more off-guard were the vintage showerheads suspended from the ceiling. What nailed it was three women clad only in bloomers emerging from each of those seemingly empty bathtubs splashing water onto the plexiglas floor fixture. The artistry of set and costume designer Bretta Gerecke may be one of the most compelling aspects of this play.

Actresses Beth Graham, Daniela Vlaskalic, and director Charlie Tomlinson were inspired  to co-write The Drowning Girls by the story of George Joseph Smith who, during the period 1912-1914, succeeded in marrying, defrauding, and murdering three of his five wives. In each case, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty declaring the deaths in each case accidental even though Smith, a.k.a. John Lloyd and Henry Williams, was alone with them prior to their deaths and was the one to phone in notice to the police of the deaths. The story is told from the perspective of the three drowned women.

Each of the three actresses – Daniela Vlaskalic as Beatrice Mundy or Drowning Girl #1, Beth Graham as Alice Burnham or Drowning Girl #2, and  Natascha Girgis as Margaret Lofty or Drowning Girl #3 – played her role exceptionally well, which was no small task given that they spent half their time in water or being showered on.

I had an opportunity after the play to speak briefly to the actresses. My questions focused on the difficulty of performing while wet. Graham said that it wasn’t bad while in the water but that it was cold when stepping out of the tub. Girgis said that the water coming from the showerheads was initially cold. It was amazing that they made no gestures on  stage to indicate that they were suffering hypothermia – all out of dedication to their craft.

Graham deserves special mention for her acting. One would think she was Chaplin’s student the way she at times mimicked that little clown. Always full of energy, her antics were both charming and hilarious.

Narda McCarroll, lighting  designer, did a very good job particularly in isolating individual actors during the performance.

The soundscapes created by Peter Moller, sound designer, definitely added to the performance.

One  may wonder why it is that I’ve delayed any further comment about the play itself. While not outright sucking, it was thinner than the gruel served by Irish mothers to their families during the Great Potato Famine. This was due to the approach taken by the co-creators in creating the story – telling it from the perspective of the deceased women. About a third of the hour and twenty minutes playtime could easily have been chopped. However, such a short play certainly wouldn’t have interested any theatre and might have been too long for the Fringe.

One of the problems created by the approach taken was in how to inform the audience of the back story, i.e. details of the women murdered, the murderer, the police investigation, etc. This had to come from the only narrators available: the three deceased women. But it would have been even more boring and drawn-out if told as monologues. So what to do? The solution employed was something equivalent to the musical technique used by such groups as the Kalahari Bushmen with their one note whistles: the hocket technique, where each member of the group blows his respective whistle when that particular note is required. In music, this makes for an interesting artistic event. In The Drowning Girls, it drew out an already lagging, slow paced show.

The audience, while already suffering from boredom, was subjected mid-way through to the heat in the theatre being turned up probably so that the actors didn’t catch pneumonia.

If it wasn’t for the talents of the three female actors as well as the artistry of the support people this would have been a completely dismal affair. It was almost salvaged, although almost is still a long way from good, with these talents attendant.

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John Herbert Cunningham


John Cunningham is a Winnipeg writer. His poetry reviews have appeared in Arc, Prairie Fire, and other literary magazines.