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    Stage review

    In a compelling ‘Dark Room,’ images of mystery and despair

    Jenna Pollack stars as The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress in “Dark Room,” presented by Bridge Repertory Theater.
    Andrew Brilliant
    Jenna Pollack stars as The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress in “Dark Room,” presented by Bridge Repertory Theater.

    CAMBRIDGE — Before Wednesday night’s performance of “Dark Room,” director Olivia D’Ambrosio asked the audience to turn off their cellphones and pointed out the emergency exits, then cautioned everyone not to try too hard to make linear sense of what they were about to see. Good advice. This is an excellent production of a play that’s often powerful but also too enigmatic for its own good.

    George Brant’s world premiere script is a series of interconnected scenes “inspired by the life, death and photography of Francesca Woodman,” a prodigy known for her haunting black-and-white photos, who committed suicide in 1981 at age 22.

    Woodman’s pictures are in-your-face, often surreal, insistently mysterious even (or especially) when her own body is the focus. They inspired Brant to comedy and drama, hilarious spirit-world arguments and aching glimpses of loss.


    But, especially in the first half, he has written an episodic, nonlinear dreamscape a la David Lynch, with oddball aphorisms (“There’s nothing more tragic than an unused muse”), offbeat jokes (“Woodpecker week was the worst!”), and characters who veer unpredictably between sarcasm and teary despair. The maids cleaning up mysterious matter (ectoplasm?) in a dead girl’s room, the two women squabbling in Pinteresque fashion on the beach, and the grainy realism of a grieving mother’s monologue don’t feel like they’re from the same play. And we don’t see the photos that inspired these vignettes, which might help them cohere.

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    In the second half Brant finds his focus in mortal matters, with a tragicomic Dickensian back and forth among three women in their graves and a heart-rending look at the aftermath of a suicide through the eyes of an angel who could not stop it.

    The individual parts of “Dark Room” are compelling thanks to the actors and D’Ambrosio, who is also Bridge Rep’s producing artistic director, along with a team including scenic designer Ryan Bates and sound designer and composer Elizabeth Cahill, whose creepy electronic background music sets the mood. Movement organized by Doppelgänger Dance Collective ties together the disparate scenes as best they can be, notably in a lively introduction to the graveyard. The towering, ornate, old courtroom space of the Multicultural Arts Center, with its big windows and wraparound balcony, is a special effect in itself.

    The cast of 22 women — with one nonspeaking male performer nightly — breathes life into the characters, as well as pushing Boston theater’s year-end stats on gender balance in the right direction.

    Jenna Pollack gives poignancy to The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress, who appears as an avatar of Woodman throughout, darting backward as if reversing time or hunched off to the side in unsettling poses culled from the artist’s pictures. Lourdes Martinez and Julie Nelson make a sadly funny pair of maids, Jennifer Rohn nails mom’s monologue, and Cheryl McMahon gets big laughs in the graveyard scene as Millicent, squawking from her coffin. The climax rests on Gillian Mariner Gordon, who’s searingly sad as an angel who sacrifices her wings for naught.


    Late in the performance, a timely real-life lightning storm lit up the second-floor window where The Girl often perched, drawing a murmur from the audience below. But the production had plenty of drama already.


    Play by George Brant. Directed by Olivia D’Ambrosio. Presented by Bridge Repertory Theater, in residence at the Multicultural Arts Center, Cambridge, through Aug. 16. Tickets $45,

    Joel Brown can be reached at