Video elements in live theater are almost always alienating. Projected scenery or images of actors' faces often push us away from what we're seeing, making everything onstage seem less human and immediate. And while that effect can be useful, many videographers are blandly beholden to it. That's why "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea," a collection of creepily funny vignettes from British troupe 1927, is so refreshing. It proves that images on a screen can make a show feel more alive.
Video elements in live theater are almost always alienating. Projected scenery or images of actors’ faces often push us away from what we’re seeing, making everything onstage seem less human and immediate. And while that effect can be useful, many videographers are blandly beholden to it. That’s why “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” a collection of creepily funny vignettes from British troupe 1927, is so refreshing. It proves that images on a screen can make a show feel more alive.The key is that video and performers interact. Paul Barritt’s films and animations — which look decayed and cracked, like they were made in the silent era — are vital to the macabre stories told by two narrators and a singer-pianist. When a nameless woman (Esme Appleton) steps out to have a cigarette, smoke rings blow across a screen. When she runs somewhere, she stands behind a smaller screen, where stockinged legs are furiously racing. This interplay requires an enormous amount of precision. In a segment called “The Nine Deaths of Choo Choo Le Chat,” Appleton plays a cat that is killed, among other things, by a car, an arrow and a bolt of lightning. Thesp has to angle her body just so, or else the video weapons won’t strike her at all. Yet the show always feels spontaneous. The performers behave as though they are dealing with real objects, and half the fun is seeing how natural they appear when using, for example, an animated watering can. However, this isn’t just a parade of high-tech gimmicks. The production — written by co-star Suzanne Andrade, who co-directs with Barritt — has real wit. Its gruesome tales have a prim and proper tone, and even though the actors’ faces are painted ghost white, they wear tasteful early 20th century dresses. Their sinister delight is always ladylike, expressed with demure smiles and flashing eyes. It’s like watching Edward Gorey characters take over the stage. Wrapped in such whimsy, the sick stories become charming. It’s almost cute, for instance, when we hear about a family that deep-fries everything in their home, including their children. The hungry, animated clan is made from old-fashioned line drawings that crudely move their arms and mouths, and when they eat the father’s beard, the narrator calls it “a wee treat.” Even a predictable element — the use of an audience volunteer — feels fresh in this cracked context. Dressing the patron as their weary old granny, the actors play naughty games to tease her, and the joke launches into a hilarious silent movie parody when “granny” is pushed offstage and then reappears onscreen. Granted, the show doesn’t have anything profound to say, but dark humor this stylish and inventive is its own reward.