Mary Rose: an excellent ghost story that would be better without the music

This seems to be an outlying opinion, as evidenced by a quick glance at other local critics, but I found myself less than mesmerized by the supernatural tale Mary Rose, a ghost story now being presented by Black Button Eyes Productions at The Edge Theatre. An adaptation of a 1920 J. M. Barrie play, with music and lyrics provided by director Ed Rutherford and Jeff Bouthiette, the play invites us into a strange empty manor home that is rumored to be haunted as we follow a chaplain (Kevin Webb) who feels a mysterious, almost desperate need to understand what happened here…even after being warned away by the housekeeper (Rosalind Hurwitz). This sounds at first like a generic plot for a ghost story, but it becomes more complicated as we learn more about the events that brought us to this point. Still, even with the cleverness of some of these twists and the full dedication of an ensemble of talented actors, I remained always outside the play rather than being pulled in. For this, I place the blame on the adaptation itself, and more specifically on the songs. With too-expository lyrics and music that often trudges along and feels too much like chanting, Mary Rose‘s songs, though occasionally excellent, end up weighing the play down.

This is saying nothing against the play that J.M. Barrie wrote. With its creepy Sussex mansion and the central tale of a woman who twice vanishes, seemingly without a trace, on a Scottish island that seems to have a will of its own (the locals refer to it as “The Island That Likes to Be Visited”), the pieces are definitely present to stir wonder and chills. Though Rutherford made plenty of good decisions in adapting Barrie’s play, it would work much better if it were unencumbered by the embellishment of being turned into a musical. Sometimes being made into a musical is the best thing that could ever happen to a story, but those musicals have better songs. Here, from the plodding opening ensemble number that sets up the eeriness through the finale that, in similar style, sums everything up, we are presented with far too many numbers that nor only fail to be memorable, but are actually dull. Oh, a few—notably “A Better Man Since Breakfast” and “Tolerably Good”—manage to break through, but most of the time songs end up drifting together like the tide on the shore of an island that wants your soul.

Rutherford’s direction works far better than the songs he co-wrote. There are many enticing moments here, from the pure whimsy of Mary Rose telling her life story to a rowan tree to the foreboding ghostly fog from which she appears within the mansion. Visually, the play works very well, and the ensemble makes it even better. Webb, recently seen as the title character in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, captures the lonely confusion of a man who isn’t sure just where he fits in the world. As Mary Rose, Stephanie Stockstill has the ability to play both the innocent girl and the darker soul she has become after twenty years in a kind of otherworldly limbo—and make both completely believable. Maxel Schingen’s Simon is a perfect love interest for the young Mary Rose and delights in a scene in which he asks her parents (well portrayed by Maiko Terazawa and, in the performance I saw, Quinn Corrigan) for her hand. This excellent group is rounded out by Hurwitz and Michael Reyes (as a nervous Scotsman who takes Simon and Mary Rose to the island).

The play takes place on a seemingly empty set by Jeremiah Barr that has a couple of tricks built in and is lit by mostly excellent work by Liz Cooper. Though I question whether the fog light had to be pointed directly at the audience and the decision to light a “fire” with only a tiny pinpoint of red, on the whole Cooper’s design is much more than “tolerable.” So is the solid sound design by Macy Kloville that, among other things, makes Mary Rose’s voice feel more powerful and ghostly.

I can well understand why many of my colleagues seem to have enjoyed this production, as the story and performances are indeed wonderful, but for me it just didn’t conjure the emotional response that any successful ghost story must. But check it out for yourself: tickets are available at Black Button Eyes, and the show plays through February 12.

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