Sometimes, It Takes a Woman to Solve a Murder
February 2, 2010
Be careful how you judge "Trifles," as performed by the experimental troupe Theater of a Two-Headed Calf. What initially feels foolish could, on reflection, prove to be more powerful, and what is frustrating may later gel into something intriguing. While not all of the production's missteps are absolved by time, not everything here is what it first seems, either.
"Trifles," written by Susan Glaspell and first performed in 1916, has become a staple of theater studies. Though the play is celebrated as an early feminist drama, it stands on its own as an engrossing story. In the tale, two women, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale, gradually uncover the motive for a murder, while their male counterparts are blinded by ignorance and insensitivity. The women examine the details — the trifles — of the suspect's life to discover a deeper meaning and in the end solve a mystery by exposing a tragedy.
As performed here, "Trifles" is poignant and, occasionally, pretentious. Extended pauses have been inserted throughout, creating long silences; characters often abruptly stop for 5 or 10 seconds between lines or in the middle of dialogue. At first the effect is puzzling (the first-night audience tittered and laughed nervously). Yet those silences go on to build an unnerving sense of claustrophobia and isolation. They're an effective device but one that suffers from overuse, as does the wordless singing that punctuates the play — what serves as a tool threatens to become a distraction.
Still, even when those and other techniques sometimes misfire, the production, directed by Brooke O'Harra, is never less than professional. Caitlin McDonough-Thayer, as Mrs. Hale, and Becca Blackwell, playing Mr. Hale, are standouts in a strong cast, and the new-music quartet Yarn/Wire provides beguiling live accompaniment. Peter Ksander's set and Justin Townsend's lighting also aid in creating an eerie, affecting mood that lingers after the show ends.
That mood is the most absorbing aspect of this hourlong "Trifles." In reimagining Glaspell's play, the ensemble gambles that a host of nontraditional methods will help heighten the tension and foster compassion. Some of those chances pay off. A few don't. And others just need to sink in.