BWW Review: AFTERLOVES: LOVE LIVES IN THE AFTERLIFE at The Bard's Town
There are many thoughts about life after death, most tied to one organized religion or another, but there is one less denominational fantasy afterlife...let's call it the Hollywood version, in which flights of literary fancy that violate most of the rules of Heaven are always possible.
Betsy Reisz and Ron Hanks imagine preposterous romantic pairings of long-deceased historical figures such as the Virgin Mary and P.T. Barnum, in which she is, however improbably, the most experienced of the pair when it comes to the pleasures of the flesh, or Nikola Tesla and Cleopatra, who share the same discrepancy to a more profound degree.
Ernest Hemingway and Marie Antoinette are more closely matched in experience and the focus shifts to Papa's connection with the blood lust of hunting and killing and sex. Such insightful parodies of traditional masculine archetypes appear to be one of the benefits of such amusing combinations. Take a moment to remember exactly how Marie met her demise and the possibilities for subtext rise to the surface.
Anne Boleyn met the same fate as one of Henry VIII's six wives, and she is paired with the mad Russian monk Rasputin, whose egregious execution would have killed several men. That these couplings pair individuals who died violently may or may not be intentional, but the mind looks for rational underpinnings for why Mark Twain and Joan of Arc might be drawn to each other, for example, and for all of the incongruity on display here, the script is far too clever to embrace randomness so completely. I appreciated that those connections were not always spelled out but left for the audience to perhaps discover for themselves (or not).
But, as if to emphasize the lighter sense of fun, I also appreciated the taste for a swift, blink-and-you-miss-it joke about King Tut and Tennessee Williams. By the time Abraham Lincoln comes to court Judy Garland, we've been primed to expect anything.
All of the couples are played by co-writer Betsy Reisz and Levi Petree. Reisz's projection was slightly better than Petree's, but I really liked the smaller details and underplayed aspect of most of Petree's time onstage. His rendition of Tesla was particularly well observed, but he also brought just the right sense of bravado and appetite to Hemingway. Reisz was a bit more outsized in her characterizations - I thought there was a little too much brass in her Garland, but it also results in a bolder feeling than we might have expected for Mary and Marie, and Cleopatra was my personal favorite, a point where the actor's confidence beautifully matched the arrogant presumption that must have been inherent in the Queen of the Nile.
Reisz finishes the tight 60-minute show with one couple that allows a love between the living to carry on after death. Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning communicate through written correspondence, which intimates an interesting notion of this fantasy heaven about what artists will do there - they will continue to create in the same way they did before they slipped the surly bonds. If the seven previous couples seem so wrong for each other (an arguable point) the Brownings fulfill both our desire to experience one true love, and to be delivered an ending happy enough to end the piece on a sweet note of romance.
Afterloves is a show built for travel: spare of props and costumes, Reisz and Petree do not entirely rely on the few wigs and headpieces to distinguish the different characters, most of the work is the honest labor of skilled actors equipped with felicitous talent and a lack of pomposity. They never take themselves too seriously, and the sense that they are having a ball onstage was infectious enough for the opening night audience.
My sense is that those audience members were mostly previously acquainted with Betsy Reisz, a Louisville native and graduate of the Youth Performing Arts School/DuPont Manual who performed with several local companies before relocating to Los Angeles. But if that house was "stacked", it might worth clarifying that I don't know Reisz at all and found Afterloves funny, charming and more thoughtful than the premise might suggest.
Afterloves: Love Lives In The Afterlife
February 14-17 @ 8:00 PM
The Bard's Town
1801 Bardstown Road
Louisville, KY 40205