A Play of a Documentary of a Murder Unsolved – Tragedy in Spades

Photo courtesy of 'Tragedy in Spades'

Photo courtesy of ‘Tragedy in Spades’

There is nothing quite so satisfying as a solid murder mystery. And true crime documentaries are of peak culture interest at present: Making a Murderer, The Jinx, to name a few. Tragedy in Spades: A Crime Documentary, currently in performance at University Settlement as part of the Artist-in-Residence program, speaks to this trend. Created by playwright Liza Birkenmeier and director Katherine Brook, the play examines the relationship between a small Missouri town and a brutal murder of a teenage girl, depicting an 80s/90s Americana plagued with an inability to contextualize horrors too close for comfort — a conundrum prevalent today. (Thus our obsession with the genre.)

The performance space was long, wide, comprised of wooden sprung floors flanked by rows of tall windows. Situated a floor above street level in the Lower East Side, faint honks and sirens occasionally filtered through the sealed glass. We never lost sight of where we were, willed into a world that did not dismantle the present with an illusion of theatricality. Instead, the play’s form acknowledged the make-believe act of creating a collective story before an audience, and this in turn made the space well suited for the style.

It began with a casual knock against the same door the audience entered from. The light raps beckon the actors on to stage, and for a brief moment, I was reminded of athletes walking on to a field, carrying a sense of quiet readiness about them. And because the audience used the same entrance as the players, there was a subtle indication of equality, or inclusion perhaps, of the audience, as if to suggest we are also participants in an unspoken understanding that there is a play happening now. A semi-circle arrangement of white fold out chairs invited the actors to sit as fellow witnesses — a befitting choice as the play took on a story within a story vibe: this is a play, of a documentary, of a murder unsolved.

Flier’s Thumb, Missouri. Small town. Lorna Das, owner of an animal sanctuary, has made a documentary about the unsolved murder of young Holly Spade, a girl who, years back, had expressed interest in animals, but whom Das knew only peripherally — enough to be emotionally invested and emotionally unbiased. We followed Das through footage, evidence, interviews, and photographs, as she dug to unearth who done it. This play is as much an examination of her character as it is the web of people surrounding the life and death of Holly Spade.

The cast was comprised of twelve actors who inhabited an array of different characters. The movement was brisk, physicalizations swift. One stepped toward center, while another described what we see: “Vikki Tippets faces Highway Twenty-One. She smokes a Misty Menthol Light.” The actor lit an invisible cigarette. “Her bangs are curled, bleached, and blowing.” The actor made a small toss of bangs with a flick of the neck. Actors played fans, cats, sang church songs, and danced gymnastic showcases, working together to embody all facets of story, occasionally donning an item of clothing to indicate a change in character. This flow of traveling focal points among the cast created an additional, subliminal dramatic question: who will play what next?

At the far back end of the stage was a wide, white wall, which provided an apt backdrop for actors to create still poses, freezing their bodies to fit the descriptions of acquired photographs seen through Lorna’s lens. As the story progressed, we felt the evidence accumulate. The stark visual descriptions did not weigh the play down, but managed to give us just enough to keep moving forward.

There was an element of reverence in making the choice to tell the tale in this way. To see a group of actors invested in the conveyance of a story mirrored Lorna Das’s own sense of import to give voice to a mystery the town has — however unintentionally — hushed in to silence, and tucked away in to a corner of the forgotten.

The group was diverse, reflective of New York City’s diversity — another conscious reminder of where we really were, a choice that revealed an understanding of place. Every town has a feel and manner particular unto itself, and by keeping the story-tellers of this performance true to our present place, our awareness of Flier’s Thumb, Missouri was amplified. The nostalgic nod to the 80s/90s also felt befitting, as the era has just reached that comfortable distance to elicit both mockery and reminiscence.

This is a smart, well studied play. The wry turns of plot exhibited a comprehensive familiarity with the true-crime-doc genre. In this way, many of the twists struck a familiar chord. One question unfurled in to more questions, leading us to make links between characters as we traveled along a fluid timeline, tactfully weaving through puzzle pieces, moving ever-deeper in to perilous terrain.

I appreciated most of all the stripped-down aesthetic, for this – to me – demonstrated a faith in good storytelling. If you have a compelling mystery told by a capable company, what more do you need? The stage manager — the one responsible for tapping on the door to initiate the play’s beginning — sat at a small table down center, watching and following along in her script, occasionally singing or chiming in to give voice to the story, playing sound cues with an i-Pod. This method of exposure — again, no illusions, nothing hidden from the audience eye — created an apt parallel incongruence as we examined a town afflicted by secrets, conjectures, cover-ups, and far more questions than answers.

But as things got curiouser and curiouser, I found myself waiting — hoping — to be shocked, to witness a sudden turn wherein a character was rendered vulnerable due to a side-swipe of the unexpected. I never felt in danger, so much as safely looking on from a distance. The play was so well choreographed that it left little wiggle room for moments of authentic spontaneity. As swift as the movement of the piece was, narration inevitably slows surprises. I also wished for more contradictory qualities within the characters. While they jointly comprised an eclectic assortment, the individuals could have carried more complex, opposing layers.

Overall, there is a tone to this play that revels in mystery, in the trying to assemble a sequence of bread crumbs that keeps us following for more. Answers are not given freely, and I will bite my tongue regarding any prevalent, give-away information. Suffice it to say, Tragedy in Spades: A Crime Documentary is a show worth seeing.

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