With a painting of Diana the huntress over the mantel that houses their two separate collections of books and a porcelain statue of a long-haired hound, the sisters Loveday and Valeria live a genteel and irritable life together as Victorian ladies. Both have wandered slightly (and not so slightly) off the path of respectability, and they are about turn that wandering into a gallop. When the bodies of young actresses begin to turn up in the streets surrounding their lodging house for young women, they are compelled to take matters into their own well-gloved hands.
Such is the setting of The Victorian Ladies’ Detective Collective, which opened this past weekend at Central Works. The play by Patricia Milton is the 63rd world premiere from a company that has specialized in developing world premieres for the past 29 years through their writers workshop program, an integral part of the company. This was Milton’s fifth collaboration with Central Works, and the latest in her impressive string of plays and readings, nationally and internationally produced.
Like most of Central Works productions, the play takes on topical and political subjects and looks at them comprehensively. The plays tend to be brainy, but in a very entertaining way, and certainly in a way that appeals to its East Bay audience. Housed in the beautiful Julia Morgan–designed Berkeley City Club, these intelligent company productions are intimate, with the audience in three rows ringing the large room that acts as a stage, easily accessible to the wryly comic discussions.
The Victorian Ladies’ Detective Collective takes on the question of the treatment of women in society, but its historical perspective is all too familiar-sounding with current questions of misogyny and the under-representation and abuse of women, especially in the acting and legal professions.
Loveday, played by the redoubtable Stacy Ross, abandoned her family’s gentility as a young woman to be an actress until an on-stage fire destroyed her already fragile career. Now as a middle-aged lady she has subsided into being a member of the Ornithological Society and making her less adventurous and cat-loving sister’s life a mild misery. Refusing to rein in her curiosity, she decides to become a detective and solve the mystery of Battersea Butcher, the serial killer of young women who stalks the streets of her district. It’s unnerving the swans in the local river. And Loveday has, after all, “played britches roles.”
Sister Valeria, played by the company’s co-founder Jan Zvaifler, lost her avaricious husband in a boating incident. Nigel, her husband, “drowned with mediocre efficiency in six feet of water.” Valeria is plagued by sleeplessness and headaches only relieved by laudanum, the Victorian drug of choice. She owns the Hunter Lodging House and holds a tight grip on the purse strings. When her sister demands she join the hunt for the killer, she replies, “I don’t let virtue interfere with my everyday decision-making,” But join she does.
The third lady in the collective is the less genteel and more outgoing young American actress, Katie Small, played by Chelsea Bearce. She’s not only more out-spoken in a Southern drawl (Heavens and alas! An American!), she also has some wicked martial arts moves with a steel-ribbed fan. Indispensable. The snappy fan fight choreography was by Marcella Rodgers.
Playing the male foils to this troupe of sleuths in long skirts was Alan Coyne. As the disbelieving cop on the beat, a lustful theater producer and the so-moronic-he’s-almost-evil delivery boy of cat meat for Valeria’s kitty, his characters inhabit the world of male malevolence toward women. “Women are the weaker sex,” according to Constable Crane, like “cats are smaller than dogs” – a sentiment echoed with more or less vitriol by the other characters. Is one of these guys is the serial killer? Or is it the penny-dreadful but all too bloody Jack the Ripper?
That’s for the Victorian Ladies’ Detective Collective – and you – to find out …
– Jaime Robles
Central Works’ The Victorian Ladies’ Detective Collective continues through June 2 at the Berkeley City Club. For information and tickets, visit centralworks.org.