Orbiter 3’s world premiere of The Brownings by playwright/actor Sam Henderson is sui generis: a fictionalized history, a dissection of marriage, and a romanticized portrait of crazy artists: Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Charlotte Northeast in a knockout, wild-woman performance), Robert Browning (frowning David Ingram in a hilariously tormented performance), and Robert Schumann (James Ijames as our sometimes elegant, sometimes sleazy narrator and piano player).
How did I love this show? Let me count the ways:
- The subject: the Brownings, famous power couple on the roster of towering 19th-century poets, living in exile in Italy, isolated by her illness and their obsessive writing. When things get tense between them, she challenges him to a sonnet-writing contest – 90 seconds, on the subject of equality. Guess who wins.
- The dramatic structure: fragments of their life together through the years, scene after scene, each announced by Schumann. The scenes first center mostly on frantic sex and brutally honest “feedback,” and then their love affair grows more complicated.
- The sensational acting: three excellent actors with roles like a “big, plump, jolly poem” to sink their teeth into, all stops out.
- The direction: Harriet Power does that exceptional trick: She lets the actors have their heads and reins them in at the same time (I know, I know, a mixed metaphor, magic and horses, so sue me).
- The dialogue: It keeps surprising us, line after line, with a mixture of contemporary slang (“Dude … ”) and lines from their famous and not-so-famous poems.
- The character development: An intricate power struggle defines the relationship between two high-profile artists, famous but not quite equally famous, talented, but not quite equally talented, while being intensely, fiercely in love and coping with each other’s neurotic, laudanum-stoked needs (“This is your version of me” and “Oh, sweetie … “).
- The clever set design: Out of a few scraps of furniture, Apollo Mark Weaver creates a house, a study, and a second floor, aided by the lighting design (Jerold R. Forsyth) that keeps us focused where we need to be focused.
- The costumes (Marie Ann Chiment): Elizabeth Barrett Browning wears the ugliest dress and the worst hairdo in the history of the Victorian world, while the men wear superb suits.
The Brownings isn’t a flawless play – too many repetitions; whole scenes could be excised – but having counted the ways, it’s smart and funny, more than worth the 80 minutes you spend watching it.
The Brownings. An Orbiter 3 Production, through Through Dec. 9 at Fringe Arts, 140 N. Columbus Blvd. Tickets $25. Information: 215-413-1318, fringearts.com/event/the-brownings.