Time Out of Joint

Petticoat junction: Time travelers from the Jungle Theater's On the Verge

Shipping crates of various sizes clutter the stage of the Jungle Theater's On the Verge. Like obsessive naturalists doodling in their notebooks, this production's scenic painters have scrawled sketches over every available surface. Atop a particularly massive crate is a series of images apparently drawn from the late 19th-century serial photographs of French physiologist Etienne-Jules Marey, showing a petticoat-clad woman leaping into the air.

The leaping woman seems an appropriate complement to Eric Overmyer's popular script, which debuted at Baltimore's Center Stage in 1985. The story follows the misadventures of three petticoat-clad, Victorian-era globetrotters who have become unstuck in time, their expedition into savage land detouring into a simultaneous send-up of the 1930s women-in-jeopardy serials "The Perils of Pauline" and time-travel narratives. Like Marey's leaping woman, our heroes have jumped into a fragmented version of time itself. The flotsam and jetsam of the future--from "I Like Ike" pins to assorted eggbeaters--drop from the sky throughout the play as the explorers confront a variety of absurd visitors, including a singing Yeti and a fortune-spewing Dragon Lady (all played, in a feat of comic inventiveness, by Chris Carlson).

Overmyer's three adventurers, acted earnestly by Leah Curney, Norah Long, and Nancy Plank, fret about this bizarre state of affairs, engaging one another in dialogue marked by incessant punning and baroque sentence structures. Much of the speech in On the Verge sounds as though Overmyer had cast around in an unabridged dictionary, searching for fancy language to force between the lips of his leading ladies. Like Tom Stoppard at his most indulgent, Overmyer occasionally clambers over the perilously thin line between smart and smart-ass. Artless and ponderous utterances burst from the stage like small firecrackers apparently intended to dazzle the audience. Yet while Overmyer's characters talk endlessly about the future, they have little to say about it.

A pity, because the conceit of the play is thrilling. The half-century leap these characters make would take them over momentous historic events, including two world wars and the rise of modern feminism. The Victorian mind, presumably, would fracture when faced with the future, allowing boundless opportunity for comic meltdowns. Overmyer, however, gives his actors few fractures and fewer meltdowns, instead favoring kitschy comic interludes and incessant nattering. The explorers' expedition into the future consists of nothing more challenging than encounters with a humorous cannibal and a leather-jacketed dirigible captain. Just as in badly written sitcoms, these peripheral figures are more amusing than the main characters. They yammer comical dialogue and make goo-goo eyes at the lady explorers, who respond with bewilderment and arguments about the appropriateness of trousers on women.

This is the feminism of On the Verge: trouser arguments, which reappear at odd moments throughout the play until the action freezes in 1955. Safely moored in the last decade of the unemancipated housewife, two of the lead actors scamper off the stage after half-baked career plans and hunky men. Like the heroes of a Jane Austen novel, they have confronted modernity with their Victorian values intact; their stories end where their love lives begins. Who needs to worry about the specters of 20th-century feminism (reproductive rights, women's suffrage, etc.), when the real issue at hand is finding a good man?

Of the three explorers, one presses forward into the future, now dressed in the despised trousers. Director John Clark Donahue has staged this scene as a giddy ascent toward a brightly lit portal: The doors to the city of the future open before her. And the audience, likewise, stands with a new world sprawling before it. Based on the past hundred years, this is a moment that should be viewed with awe and dread. Instead, coming at the end of a play that has reduced the previous century to a few isolated scraps of pop-culture detritus, it is more a diverting shuffle than a leap forward.

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