Printer’s Devil’s Engaging Torso is in Need of Alignment

Why do playwrights insist on ruining a perfectly interesting and plausible relationship with totally unsupported twists?

Torso, the current offering by Printer’s Devil Theater (at Theatre Off Jackson through March 31; tickets: $5-$15), provides an excellent opportunity to ponder this question. The end of Torso announces itself, plots resolve, the story makes sense and then one final action leaves us shocked and questioning the play’s central relationship.  The answers to those questions don’t add up to a cohesive plot or plausible main character, which is unfortunate, because there’s a lot about Torso that’s interesting and engaging.

Torso centers on Daphne (Sarah Rudinoff) an ailing woman who spends an evening trading traumas with a gruff and reluctantly heroic cabbie (John Q. Smith). The two bond over one another’s grief for lost siblings and her obsession with a murder in her hometown, but Daphne’s personal connection to this murder is one of the weakest aspects of the plot. One can’t help but wonder how her later actions might have played had the stakes of her connection been lower and the relationship more clear.

The murder plot is played out in interspersed scenes that we in the audience experience as a parallel narrative. Sometimes this works to great advantage, as when character doubling creates dualities that inform our perception of both characters or when the events in one narrative dovetail with events in the other. Sadly these synchronicities are inconsistent at best and often few and far between. Sometimes the doublings are downright confusing, particularly when flashbacks are thrown in the mix.

Under David Bennett’s direction the ensemble flails stylistically, which is not helped by an early audition scene that blurs the line between intentional and unintentional bad acting. Additionally, Susanna Burney, Rudinoff, and Smith spend most of their time in roles in which they occasionally take wild tonal swings.

With Burney’s portrayal of Marlo this might be a legitimate character choice but the line between bad acting and a manic-depressive character isn’t clear. Nor is it helped by the fact that she often seems to be channeling Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. For Rudinoff it may be an attempt to justify Daphne’s unjustifiable final moments. Smith has integrated an occasional smarminess in his character but tends to turn it on and off without provocation.

Smith also leads the cast in some curious accent choices as he often slips into the sort of Italian-American accent associated with toughs out of central casting. On the other hand Emily Chisholm brings admirable consistency and a light touch to her Wisconsin character’s accent. However it is a bit jarring that none of the other dozen or so Upper Midwestern characters have much of a remarkable accent.

Printer’s Devil Theater’s stated commitment to simple, but well conceived production values is displayed unevenly in this production. Despite a few excessively long set changes they have the simplicity part nailed down by and large. The conception is solid, for the most part, but the execution is often weak. Sound design ranges from the perfectly executed to the bizarrely misconceived. The car door slams amply compensate for the actors’ poor mime skills but why the sound cue for the hotel faucet? Sound designer Michael Hayes also loses the battle to make decent or even consistent cell phone rings.

Sarah Harlett’s costumes are spot-on as is Jake Nelson’s set. Robert Aguilar’s lighting is strong and deserves much of the credit for the visually stunning painting scene (Seattle Rep’s Red pales in comparison on this point). His lighting also provides beautiful support for Stephen Hando’s riveting 11th-hour speech.

Hando and Chisholm are the stand-out performers of this ensemble in their roles as Tina Shackley and Dominic Roy. Chisholm in particular provides a still center to this fitful production and she and Hando create a stage relationship that proves more interesting than anything else in the play. Thankfully Healey lets them live fully. One hopes that she’ll have the confidence to give more of her characters that same freedom in the future.