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Anna Bella Eema

The Strand concocts an odd but compelling experience

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Anna Bella Eema

By Lisa D’Amour

At The Strand Theater through Oct. 22

Anna Bella Eema is more storytelling session than play. This experimental piece, by Obie Award-winning playwright Lisa D’Amour, is narrated throughout by one or another of the characters, and is set entirely within a not-so-mobile home, the last in a trailer park slated for demolition. The plot, such as it is, concerns Irene (Susan Sarandon lookalike Alix Fenhagen), her 10-year-old daughter Anna Bella (Arielle Goodman), and Anna Bella Eema (Christen Cromwell), a child that Anna Bella has sculpted from mud. An interstate is marching toward them and Irene, a shut-in who became a mother at the age of 15, refuses to leave.

Storytelling it may be, but it’s not child’s play. The Strand Theater’s current production is a high-intensity experience from beginning to end, loud with shrieks, guttural sound effects emanating from the characters themselves, and song. It takes some getting used to, but if you can accustom yourself to the characters’ odd vernacular and murky sense of reality—not to mention the claustrophobia their living situation induces—it’s worth the effort.

The production begins with singing, and on this all three actors are to be commended. Their voices together have a lovely, eerie quality that swells to fill the small venue. Goodman in particular has a powerful rich voice, to which the others lend an ethereal backdrop reminiscent of Dirty Projectors harmonies. Throughout the production, the songs themselves—other than Anna Bella’s catchy, hyper-kid rendition of New Orleans R&B classic “Who Shot the LaLa”—resemble chants, atmospheric interludes.

Anna Bella is a wise, wild child and her friend Anna Bella Eema a cryptic, forever-smiling spirit, seemingly from another world. She does not speak, but becomes a second sort of daughter to Irene, and Anna Bella’s sole playmate. At times her fixed doll-like smile seems half-demonic, and strange things—even for this play—seem to happen in her presence. Cromwell also takes on a variety of other characters as they come up in the narrative: a police officer, a nurse, a social worker. And she creates sound effects to accompany the story, like the approaching rumble and grunt of a bulldozer; Cromwell transitions seamlessly from one role to the next, giving texture to a tale that would be thin and dull without her there to bring the words to life.

Anna Bella herself comes to see that her mother is not mentally stable, that even though she’s a child, she must be the one to mediate with the various authority figures who come to take their home and threaten to separate them. Then, she menstruates for the first time, an event that takes on mythic proportions. She falls asleep for five days—as Irene warns the audience early in the play, in Anna Bella Eema reality and the imagination are all “simmering in the same pot”—and here the production becomes magical. Anna Bella enters a dreamscape inhabited by animals who attempt to impart knowledge to her, much as the animals do for young King Arthur in The Once and Future King. She meets Dirty Louie the Raccoon (played by Fenhagen, who wears a green beret for the part) and spends some time in a boat with an owl and a pussycat (the latter winningly played by Cromwell) and, finally, meets a fox (Fenhagen), who teaches her to hunt mice. These muffled allegories play on a recurring theme in the play, the idea that Irene and her daughter—and by extension, perhaps ourselves—retain a good deal of their animal nature. “The life of a wild animal always has a tragic end,” Irene says, a comment that turns out to be prophetic.

This fairy-tale interlude is the best section of the production, in part because it is such a relief to be free of the neurotic mother—her “work” consists of endlessly licking stamps—and the confines of her trailer. The high emotional pitch of the production, so constant it has a flattening effect, also finds some modulation here. The story becomes transporting, and enchanting to anyone with the Alice in Wonderland sort of sensibility to enjoy it.

That’s a good thing, because the visual elements of the production are, by and large, distracting and far too literal for a work this subtle. The furnishings of the trailer—the wastebaskets, the pull-out couch—are covered in fake animal skins, zebra and leopard and tiger stripes. Construction-paper drawings of animals and a large feathery wing hang on the walls. These unnecessarily pound home the animal theme while doing little to evoke a trailer. The costumes and props, too, feel amateurish. All three characters, even the mother, wear jumpers ornamented with felt flowers. It’s as if the crew had a field day on Etsy.

But the play is mostly a success, brought to a powerful conclusion by the crazed, brilliant, mile-a-minute monologues of Anna Bella. When the spotlight shines on her and she gives an animal hiss, tiny balls of spittle spray visibly out of her mouth, landing at the feet of the audience. “Something is coming,” she says ominously at one point in the play. “It’s either the interstate or the end of the world.” By the end, one is so swept up in the operatic pitch of the story that these seem one and the same.

 

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