Francesca Woodman is one of the 20th century’s greatest photographers who you’ve probably never heard of. Born into a family of artists, she had it instilled in her from a young age that nothing was more important than making art.
Woodman had an intense, enigmatic personality and as a student at the Rhode Island School of Design quickly earned a reputation for producing work that was in a completely different league that that of her peers. She didn’t just seem ahead of her time, but ahead of her years.
As so many preternaturally gifted artists are, Woodman was a tortured soul who suffered from severe bouts of depression, and it became difficult for her as a young artist to understand why the New York art world had not caught on to her yet.
And then at the age of 22, Woodman jumped out of the window of her New York loft. Her face was so beyond recognition that her body was identified using not dental records but the clothing that she was wearing. Appropriate, then, that clothing should be our way of identifying the main presence in Dark Room, a new play by George Brant that is currently in its world-premiere production at Bridge Repertory Theater.
A girl in a polka dot dress, based on one of Woodman’s many self portraits, is an anxious ball of terror, peering fearfully through a pair of thick curtains and running—sometimes forward, sometimes backward—around the ruinous-looking props that litter the large playing space, a ground zero of Woodman’s artistic mind. (The eerie, sparse set is designed by Ryan Bates.)
Though she doesn’t ever speak, it is clear that this girl (played by Jenna Pollack) is meant to represent Woodman, and it is she that connects the 11 different scenes that make up the play, scurrying all around and up and down Cambridge’s gorgeous Multicultural Arts Center.
Each inspired by one of Woodman’s photographs, the vignettes do not necessarily tell one interconnected story. Rather, Dark Room is a work of art in totality, one that audiences are invited to let wash over them without trying to think too hard about how all the pieces fit together.
But, of course, they are connected—by Woodman, yes, but also by grief, memory, love, Joni Mitchell, and that poor young girl in the polka dot dress.
Some scenes are wrenching, as when a grieving mother recounts her daughter’s death, and others are almost absurdist, as is the case with a pair of subjects waiting on the beach for their photographer to arrive. There’s a tense meeting of ex-lovers at a cafe, a trio of bickering corpses in a graveyard, a pair of sisters taken on a journey to the afterlife, and an angel who tries to lend her wings in hopes that she can foil a suicide. (You can imagine how that last one fits in.)
Not all the vignettes are successful, and several overstay their welcome, but director (and Bridge Rep artistic director) Olivia D’Ambrosio has put together one of the strangest and most fascinating productions in recent memory. The massive cast of 22—all of them women—is excellent, particularly Jennifer Rohn and Celeste Oliva.
Woodman’s photographs were dark and introspective, almost like a gothic Man Ray, and to that end Dark Room has succeeded in bringing this to life. Stephen Petrilli’s lighting and Elizabeth Cahill’s sound design are vital assets here, as is the movement by Doppelgänger Dance Collective. But should the striking visuals have been less captivating, the play would struggle to stand on its own.
And it is not so much a complaint as it is an observation that Woodman was an unapologetically sexual person and that much of her work was nude self-portraits, so it seems odd and a little off-brand for none of Brant’s scenes to explore this.
Still, Dark Room is a visually stunning, moody, and intriguingly abstract play about perspective, loss, and the way that we are remembered—and forgotten—by those whose lives were once connected, in big ways and in small ways, to our own, and D’Ambrosio’s gorgeous production aches with thrilling tenderness and profound melancholy. Regardless of what it makes you feel, I doubt that you’ve ever seen anything quite like it.
DARK ROOM. THROUGH 8.16 AT BRIDGE REPERTORY THEATER, 41 SECOND ST., CAMBRIDGE. BRIDGEREP.ORG
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.