On a platform, three women sit, facing the audience. They don’t budge from their chairs until practically the end of the show, yet there’s a choreography, in Lisa D’Amour’s Anna Bella Eema, as directed by Rebecca Novick for Crowded Fire Theater Company at the Ashby Stage, and the three actors (Cassie Beck, Danielle Levin and Julie Kurtz) provide a rhythmic soundscape as well, with voice, simple musical instruments (a finger piano) and various ordinary objects as noisemakers.
The story they enact—Beck and Levin as mother and daughter telling the audience their experiences and memories, while Kurtz plays both a speechless creature (“mud girl”) and other characters that crop up in the two narratives—at times seems like Erskine Caldwell plus The Brothers Grimm.
Set in a trailer park that’s due for demolition to make way for the interstate, Anna Bella Eema is a kind of binocular view of a hippie mother (Irene, played by Beck), overstuffed with fantasy and fable from old books, endeavoring to (as a friend once put it) “circumvent the world,” while in a parable of oncoming puberty, her precocious 10-year-old, Anna Bella (played by Levin) makes a double, Anna Bella Eema (Kurtz) and tries to explore, in ways fantastic and ordinary, the world beyond her shut-in mother and their decrepit motor home.
Each monologue of the narrative is supported by the sounds (sometimes in unison or syncopated) and gestures of the other two. Irene weaves in and out of fantasy, practically delusional at times, while Anna Bella, in a long-term dreamstate, brought on by an injury, makes a shamanistic—and humorous—journey among the animal spirits her mother hazes in and out of in her own schitzy state.
There’s a grace and confidence in the ensemble work of the three women, and Kurtz shows a real talent for mimicry and humor, also lending an offbeat accent to what’s otherwise often close to a metronomic swipe in the somewhat Expressionistic effects of rhythm.
This Expressionism of sound and gesture amplifies the hybrid fairytale quality, and sometimes feeds back. The devices get to be a little Disney-ish, too, illustrating a narrative with sounds and gestures that merely mimic or duplicate what the words have already said. And the very frontal orientation of the cast addressing the audience through monologues supported by sounds and action by the rest of the ensemble is strangely reminiscent of The Typographer’s Dream, Crowded Fire’s production of a very different kind of play by a different playwright at the Ashby Stage last year, staged as a panel discussion—three actors facing forward ... and, one by one, talking.
D’Amour’s script resembles other neo-Gothic tales of recent times, though her humor is a signature.
But what most spectators will probably go away with from Crowded Fire’s production is the ambient sense of the gestures and sounds the trio of women make, almost rooted to the wooden platform at Ashby Stage.
ANNA BELLA EEMA
Presented by Crowded Fire Theater at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturdayand at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Ashby Stage,
1901 Ashby Ave. $10-$20.
(415) 439-2456. www.crowdedfire.org.