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Umbrella Collective revisits the infamous Evelyn Nesbit and the 'Trial of the Century'

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History has long been a popular source of theatrical subject matter, but a new wave of plays is taking a more pointed interest in how history is written—specifically regarding members of communities that traditionally haven’t been allowed to do the writing.

Like Mixed Blood Theatre’s recent Roe, Umbrella Collective’s Velvet Swing takes an irreverent, multifaceted look at a woman best known for a single episode in a complex life. With Roe that was Norma McCorvey of Roe vs. Wade, and in Velvet Swing it’s Evelyn Nesbit of “The Trial of the Century.”

That would be the 20th century, and the trial of Harry K. Thaw, Nesbit’s husband. What fascinated the public is that there was no question regarding whether Thaw shot and killed Stanford White: He did so at Madison Square Garden’s rooftop theater on June 25, 1906. The question was whether Thaw would escape punishment by reason of jealous insanity due to White’s previous relationship with his wife.

This is where Evelyn Nesbit comes in... and comes in, and comes in, and comes in, and comes in. In the collaboratively created production now onstage at the Bryant-Lake Bowl, directors Alana Horton and Megan Clark have Nesbit alternately portrayed by five different actors.

The decision underscores the ways in which Nesbit has served different symbolic functions for generations of Americans less concerned with who she was than with the thoughts and actions her famously flawless image as an actress and model inspired in others. Some of those others are portrayed here, with the cast using physicality and simple costume elements to channel characters including Thaw (Mickaylee Shaughnessy) and White (Jessie Scarborough-Ghent).

With Michelle Hernick setting the mood on piano, Velvet Swing takes the form of a vaudeville melodrama. The actors often pause for meta-theatrical commentary, but Horton and Clark don’t let that sap the momentum of this tight and darkly entertaining show. The performers tell Nesbit’s larger-than-life story in winkingly hyperbole while simultaneously acknowledging the very real abuse she suffered.

Ultimately, the play wrestles with the fact that Nesbit spent most of her life living down her legacy, acting on stage and screen but never escaping her association with “playboy killer” Thaw.

For all its intellectual heft, Velvet Swing is also a lot of fun. The actors elicit copious chuckles with their mocking portrayals of the men in Nesbit’s life, and the show’s kaleidoscopic perspective keeps us engaged despite its pointed refusal to lean on reliable true-crime conventions.

Most of all, the show succeeds on the strength of its spirited and supportive ensemble, which also includes Meredith Kind, Natavia Lewis, and standout
Antonia Perez.

Even the BLB ambience adds to Velvet Swing's effect, with muffled bowling-alley cheers evoking the increasingly distant roars that might have haunted Nesbit to the end of her days.

Velvet Swing
Bryant-Lake Bowl
810 W. Lake St., Minneapolis
Through April 27; 612-825-3737