A Synopsis of Butchery
[The following review appeared in Variety the week of May 7th.]
The master of terror himself, Edgar Allan Poe, could not have written a more chilling account of catalepsy mistaken for rigor mortis than Eleanor Fletcher Bishop's real-life, 19th-Century tale of her then famous mind-reading son's demise. Adapted for the stage by Denver's ever-unpredictable and resourceful Buntport Theatre Company as its 18th world premiere (not including 65 "sit-com" episodes) since the company's inception in May of 2001, A Synopsis of Butchery explores Mrs. Bishop's gruesome contention that two doctors, one of whom was unlicensed, performed a illegal autopsy on her son while he was still alive, but in a trance-like state that only resembled death.
As befitting the setting, the story is told in melodramatic style dressed in delightful period costumes on a heavily-raked proscenium-wrapped stage, replete with footlights and a Victrola that provides pieces of the soundtrack. Additional throwback effects include a trapdoor and a moving backdrop to simulate motion during a carriage ride.
|Erik Edborg as Dr. Frank Ferguson,
Evan Weissman as Washington Irving Bishop,
and Erin Rollman as Mrs. Eleanor Fletcher Bishop
Photo: Sandra H. Elkind
Despite her son's renown, it is the former actress, Mrs. Bishop, who is the center of attention, recounting the events and casting herself as the revenging angel. Erin Rollman, who edits the original scripts developed by the company, displays her considerable emotional and vocal range as the irrepressible and doting mother who campaigns for justice against what she sees as the corrupt medical and legal establishments that have conspired to cover up her son's murder.
The details of Ms. Rollman's curtain-to-curtain performance—her plaintive eyes, hand fluttering, calculated and finessed modulations, and unflinching insistence on her character's version of events—bring the narrative structure alive and carry it for the entire 83-minute act.
|Brian Colonna as Dr. John A. Irwin and
Erin Rollman as Mrs. Eleanor Fletcher Bishop
Photo: Sandra H. Elkind
Her Mrs. Bishop is aided in the cause by three actors she employs to help recreate the crime and the trial that followed: the mad-cap Brian Colonna inhabits villain number one, Dr. John A. Irwin, with furtive glances, vain self-possession, and duplicitous insinuations, as well as adding a hilarious send-up of a monocle-challenged witness; understated Erik Edborg smiles and holds his tongue as the evasive villain number two, Dr. Frank Ferguson, an ex-shoe repairman, and contributes a comical turn as a flaming theatrical agent with an obsession for his walking stick; and the pesky Evan Weissman conjures further off-beat shtick as the mostly-dead famous mentalist and a mocking judge.
As Mrs. Bishop builds her case for malpractice and malfeasance against two professions that to this day retain control over critical forensic reviews (e.g., JFK's autopsy), we discover her credentials as one of the leading spiritualists of her day, who carried on a correspondence with Harry Houdini and held séances for notables, including Washington Irving (for whom her son was named). Using every theatrical device at her disposal, including patriotic music and graphic dramatizations, she plays the audience like mesmerized subjects, plying them for donations and calling them to action. Though her genre is a far cry from Molière's comedies that attacked the same targets, Rollman's Mrs. Bishop nevertheless lands her jabs with equally-pointed satirical punch.
Buntport Theatre's production of A Synopsis of Butchery runs through May 27th. 720-946-1388.