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Know’s “Susan Swayne” Brandishes Corsets and Cutlasses

Review by Sheldon Polonsky of Susan Swayne and the Bewildered Bride: Know Theatre

The Know Theatre summarizes its Thanksgiving offering, Susan Swayne and the Bewildered Bride, written by Reina Hardy, as “Sherlock Holmes meets Mary Poppins”. That’s as apt a description as I can think of, with the added suggestion of a little “League of Extraordinary Gentlewomen”.

We meet the titular Susan Swayne (Lisa DeRoberts) as she stakes out the house of her rival, Katherine Denn (Jordan Trovillion) in Victorian England. She is accosted by an angry wife, Isabelle Fontaine-Kite (Ernaisja Curry), who accuses her of spiriting away her husband, Eric. We soon discover that the impeccably mannered and attired Susan (dare we say, “practically perfect in every way”?) is a member of S.O.L.D., the Society of Lady Detectives, and quickly proves she is as equally adept at splitting ruffians with sword and fisticuffs as she is at avoiding splitting her infinitives. She takes Isabelle into her confidence and introduces her to the rest of her organization, led by the equally proper Lady Alice Bomberry (Regina Pugh) and rounded out by two young trainees, Adelaide (Kearston Hawkins-Johnson) and Madeline (Alexx Rouse). The only males in sight are Chris Wesselman and Nathan Tubbs, as various unnamed filler characters.

Anything more would be spoiling and frankly a little superfluous, as the plot itself is rather muddled and hard to swallow. Suffice it to say it involves cross-dressing, shifting loyalties between the women and and a lot of unbuckled swashbuckling (the women, heaven forfend, fight corset-less). Never fear, there is nothing here to offend young sensibilities except for some mild to moderate sexual innuendo. The fun of this show lies in the juxtaposition of the mild-mannered bustled women and the Holmesian milieu of the Victorian detective genre. And unfortunately that makes it a bit of a one-joke play, with the exception of a very funny exchange in an opium den during the second act. In fairness, though, this talented cast, shepherded by director Tamara Winters, manages to milk the joke for everything it’s worth, and the interplay between DeRoberts’ dead-panning delivery and Curry’s histrionics manages somehow to stay fresh throughout. Trovillion’s portrayal of Denn, while initially a little wooden, becomes quite endearing. The laurels for the evening, though, go to Alexx Rouse who had the timing down perfectly for her role as the dim-witted Madeline and consistently garnered the biggest laughs.

Andrew Hungerford’s set design, in subdued blacks, white and grays, was effective both at the evoking the Victorian setting as well as reminding us of the inherent theatricality of the production, and its sliding panel design made it very functional. The lighting design (also by Hungerford) and sound (Doug Borntrager) was subtle but appropriate. Plenty of eye-turning props abound, especially of the weapon variety (Rebecca Armstrong, Kara Eble Trusty, Andrew Homan, and Tom Fiocchi apparently can all take some of the credit for this). Finally, Noelle Wedig-Johnston’s costume design is spot-on authentic for our fastidiously habilimented heroines.

Susan Swayne has a reassuring message of female empowerment and sexual liberation, albeit without the sharpness or bite of its characters’ rapiers. And, for all the single-mindedness of its plot and gags, the production undoubtedly entertained its audience on opening night who rewarded it with a lot of hoots and guffaws. So, for a pleasant evening of derring-do with the added benefit of an extra X chromosome, head out to Know Theatre. Susan Swayne runs through December 16th; tickets can be obtained from the Know box office or https://knowtheatre.com.