First off, the stage looks nothing like the usual off-kilter sets typically employed at Know. In fact, there’s a proscenium frame with a red velvet curtain that opens to reveal a two-dimensional scene of monochromatic grey walls, depicting a street in late 19th-century London. A proper, decorous and supremely confident woman — the title character, played by Lisa DeRoberts — enters. But it’s immediately evident she’s more than a simple Victorian woman, despite an early, arch exclamation of “Oh, turnips!”
Moments into the show she’s accosted by another woman, Isabelle Fontaine-Kite (Ernaisja Curry), who accuses her of having an affair with the attacker’s husband. Swayne subdues her handily by displaying evident martial arts skills (enhanced by an umbrella that later proves to be even more than protection against rain) beyond what one would expect of a woman in that time.
We learn that Swayne is a founding member of the Society of Lady Detectives, a secret association of women who solve crimes and know how to defend themselves. After persuading Isabelle that she must be mistaken, Swayne takes her to the Society’s headquarters where they meet no-nonsense and in-charge Lady Bomberry (Regina Pugh) and two upstart apprentices — earnest Adelaide (Kearston Hawkins-Johnson) and eager and easily distracted Madeline (the very amusing Alexx Rouse). They spend much of their time in “corsetless” combat practicing swordplay.
Noelle Wedig-Johnston’s costumes are period perfect. Swayne and Isabelle are nicely decked out with bustles and such, while Bomberry and her students are frequently appareled in an intriguing array of Victorian undergarments that allow for dueling.
When Katherine Denn (Jordan Trovillion) — a member of SOLD not much appreciated by Swayne — turns up, her presence spurs confusion and more mystery. Isabelle, the show’s “bewildered bride,” identifies Katherine as someone else. The plot spins off into mayhem and melees, plots and counterplots, where some gender-fluid identity keeps the characters and the audience guessing.
This is a feminist comedy, to be sure: Chris Wesselman and Nathan Tubbs are generic men that play the occasional thug and opium addict, and serve as stagehands to turn flat scenic panels (Andrew J. Hungerford’s simple, clever and adaptable designs) from one configuration to another for quick scene changes.
So the women — aggressively assertive women to be exact — are in charge. Swayne is clearly the most eagerly and capably in charge, ready to take on and overcome any dire challenge. DeRoberts makes her an imposing, daunting and dryly witty protagonist. Except for one humorous lapse in the second act, she is generally unflappable as events unspool. On more than one occasion, it’s her job to sort things out and set them right as mysteries are encountered and solved.
Curry might have the most challenging role, since Isabelle swings manically between hysteria and manipulation. It’s a melodramatic role, in keeping with the style of the Victorian era that playwright Hardy is satirizing. Curry performs it as best she can, given this caricatured portrait of a demented, “bewildered” woman who spews forth great torrents of verbiage. Her crazed behavior is humorously balanced in a late scene by Pugh, Rouse and Hawkins-Johnston sitting side-by-side and calmly sipping tea in synchronized choreography.
The production has been staged with a firm hand by Tamara Winters, Know’s associate artistic director. It would be easy for this comedy to descend into chaos, but she has kept the reins taut enough that we follow the zigzagging plot with ease. It should also be mentioned that John Baca, the production’s fight director, has spiced the production with all sorts of breathtaking combat with swords — and more.
Susan Swayne and the Bewildered Bride is an entertaining show without much of a message beyond the fact that women can be just as swashbuckling as men. Indeed, the men in this production never get their buckles swashed — Swayne and her colleagues are much too adept and ready to take on every challenge with zest and good humor. They are “a pack of unnatural women,” anachronistically ahead of their time, but fully prepared to keep audiences laughing.
Susan Swayne and the Bewildered Bride, presented by Over-the-Rhine’s Know Theatre, continues through Dec. 15. Tickets/more show info: knowtheatre.com.