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In the Voodoo Parlour of Marie Laveau

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She's the voodoo queen of New Orleans: Chrystal Bates portrays Marie Laveau
  • She's the voodoo queen of New Orleans: Chrystal Bates portrays Marie Laveau

Because running Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company and being named artistic director of the August Wilson Center's theater initiatives wasn't stressful enough, playwright and director Mark Clayton Southers has opened a new, off-beat performance space called the Couch Theater. (It's also in Playwrights' Downtown building.)

It's insane, of course, but Southers doesn't do anything by halves. And it's in this space that Southers and company present the second installment of local playwright Frank Gagliano's "Voodoo Trilogy." Following Congo Square, with a reading of The Commedia World of Lafcadio B still to come, the Couch Theatre debuts with In the Voodoo Parlour of Marie Laveau.

The electrifying performer Chrystal Bates plays the mysterious title character, and we spend nearly two intermissionless hours in her parlor ... er, parlour ... as she negotiates with unseen voodoo gods to spare her life or save her powers or something -- I didn't quite get that part.

I also didn't get why her pleasing the gods involved forcing a man and a woman to perform an emotionally devastating mock opera.

So that's the downside: Director Kim El hasn't done all she could to spotlight Gagliano's somewhat hazy set-up. I didn't know why the three characters were onstage, and I didn't understand what they were doing.

But that's the only downside. Gagliano is about as far from a plot-focused writer as you can get, but he has created richly textured and theatrically outrageous characters and given them lush, in fact overripe, bruised-purple dialogue that is beautiful in its villainy. Gagliano, Bates and El bewitch the audience with a mesmerizing display of corrupted prose and twisted imagery.

And it's important that I mention the thrilling performances of Jennifer Tober and Mark C. Thompson as the opera "performers." These could not have been easy roles to tackle -- a playwright as good as Gagliano is not about easy -- but Tober and Thompson never fail or falter in bringing them to life.

It starts slowly and could certainly move a bit faster, but Maria Laveau's payoff is more than worth it.

 

In the Voodoo Parlour of Marie Laveau continues through Tue., March 8. Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company, 542 Penn Ave., Downtown. 412-394-3353 or www.pghplaywrights.com

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