Wormwood turns a sappy melodrama into serious fun

Drink absinthe, make imaginary friends: Kristin Foster as the Green Fairy
Ryan Ripley

Marie Corelli was the literary equivalent of a British late-19th-century unholy union between Jackie Collins and Stephen King. She wrote stories of tawdry romance, melodramatic ruin, and corny ghosts. The public bought her books by the crate-load, making her one of the most commercially successful authors of her time. The critics and intellectuals projectile-vomited in disgust.

Now, more than a century after the 1890 publication of her Wormwood: A Drama of Paris, in which a young man consumes large quantities of absinthe, becomes morally bankrupt, and is chased by a green fairy, Hardcover Theater's Steve Schroer apparently believes the time has come to adapt Corelli's work for the stage. Based on the evidence, I'd say his instincts are right.

The action begins in a Parisian café, where young Gaston (Joey Ford) is a disheveled gentleman phasing in and out of disordered consciousness. When the waiter offers him another absinthe (he has clearly already consumed a small lake of the stuff), he demurs, for the moment, instead shambling over to the piano player in the corner (Ricky Carlson) to unburden himself of his tale of woe.

And what a tale it is. In 75 minutes, we see Gaston meet and woo the callow young Pauline (Bethany Simmons), completely misread Pauline's smitten (with him) cousin Heloise (Katharine Moeller), and tragically underestimate seminary student Silvion (Philip D. Henry). When Gaston's engagement to Pauline goes in the tank, he responds by taking up an absinthe habit, which leads to him essentially destroying everyone around him in a callous and increasingly heartless manner.

Fortunately, at no time are we required to take any of this seriously. Schroer, who wrote the script and directs, keeps one thumb firmly on the scales of irony. Gaston is the same cardboard cutout on the stage that he was on the page, and Ford conveys his inch-deep love of Pauline and his gradual demise as the logical byproduct of his lack of depth, character, or neurological activity.

So why, exactly, is this thing so much fun? For starters, there's the pleasure of performing a piece of shit on its own terms, with a strange sideways affection and respect for its twisted view of itself (in other words, there's something quite funny about idiocy taking itself seriously, which seems to have been Corelli's trademark). This story, in its time, seemed to believe it had something important to say.

Then there's the friction of performing the piece of shit really well, walking that tightrope between ironic distance and uncritical belief without falling off. The artist Andre (Shad Cooper), who paints "corpses, nudes...or nude corpses," is a ridiculous caricature, but Cooper plays him with gusto. And when the Green Fairy (Kristin Foster) arrives to seduce Gaston into ruin, she is extremely silly, goofy, and yet lovely and convincing. If you must be led into self-destruction, one thinks, you could have worse companions.

Schroer also works with assurance on a transparently minuscule budget. A hallucinated panther becomes a cackle-inducing hisser in a cheap mask, and a horrifying feral child is rendered with joke-store buckteeth. And Carlson, on piano, mugs, grimaces, provides musical accompaniment, and, via glasses and false moustaches, portrays various characters' parents. Consistently, this show's responses to its staging puzzles are witty, inventive, and crackling with humor.

The real destructive power of absinthe turned out to be its preposterously high alcohol content and the fact that it went down easy (drink a pint of Jägermeister and get back to me). But the better story, for Corelli, was that it made people see fairies and turned them into monsters. At least it made for a good time (for her readers); the same can be said of this stage telling of the Victorian Reefer Madness

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