As soon as the lights go down and the shadows come out, it's clear that Word For Word's adaptation of "Angel Face" intends to be loyal to the dark, pulpy genre its author helped to create.
In fact, as it does for all its productions, Word For Word's performance speaks every word from the original short story, including all the "he said" "she said" quotation attribution, scene-setting, and exposition. It's all there, delivered to the audience, for the most part, as puckish asides.
A good thing, too. Woolrich, whose own life seemed to follow the uncanny conventions of the fiction he wrote, often lends his characters amazing abilities of description. Even his most meat-headed characters are capable of capturing a scene or a thought in powerful, evocative thuds of phrasing. All of which is preserved and enhanced in the stage adaptation.
"Angel Face," a short story Woolrich penned under the pseudonym William Irish, was discovered by dramaturg Randall Homan while looking for noir stories featuring female detectives. And although the protagonist here isn't a detective, she is as strong and sympathetic a female character as you're likely to find in any story of the time. "Angel Face" is the story of Jerry Wheeler, aka Honey Sebastian, aka Angel Face -- a brassy New York broad whose brother is framed for murdering his curiously wealthy, socialite sweetheart. Caught seemingly red-handed, lingering above his girlfriend only a few minutes after she was last seen alive, Chick, the brother (played by Danny Wolohan), is "railroaded," sent upstate in short order to face the electric chair. Jerry (Laura Lowry) has only a few weeks to prove his innocence. Luckily, she's peaked the interest of Detective Nick Burns (John Flanagan), one of the "dicks" who helped put Chick away. With only a hunch as to who the real killer might be, Angel Face takes a job as a dancer in a seedy nightclub, and begins to peel away the layers of a conspiracy to frame her brother.
The plot is filled with all the strange twists and inexplicable turns that give the genre its narcotic, dreamlike feel, which is heightened by the stage setting and lighting, which draw out the shadows and darken the demeanors of the actors. A series of three screens in the background brilliantly capture the atmosphere for each scene, freezing characters in profile at pivotal moments. Thatched into ornamental design to evoke the gaudy decoration of a downtown nightclub or a back alley, they also catch the silhouettes of significant objects, such as the branding iron that nightclub king Militis uses to mark his wayward love interests.
True to the noir form, there's plenty of cruelty in Woolrich's story, made palatable by the wry, inventive description and period slang. Thugs have faces "like cobblestones." They go down "into hamburger, under a battery of heavy fists." Shot by bullets, victims "take a nosedive." In one of many such moments, Jerry reminds us of her brother's imminent death by electric chair, saying, "Chick eats chicken and ice cream for dinner tomorrow night." The language is hard-bitten to the point of campy, and the rough-hewn New Yoik accents push it further in that direction.
Add to that Word for Word's verbatim adaptation; characters speak not only dialog, but also their stage direction, and all the other odds and ends of the written story, all of which creates a kind of playful bond between the audience and actors, and between the actors themselves:
Angel Face: "The"
Angel Face: "ticked"
Angel Face: "He'd look at me, then he'd suddenly"
Militis: "throw up his hands as though to ward off a dazzling glare. 'Turn it off, it hurts my eyes.'"
My Fedora goes off to director Stephanie Hunt and Word for Word for the inventive recreation of the text. At its best, the narration lends Woolrich's lines and characters more nuance, and adds depth to the actions on stage. The original short story is written primarily from Jerry's point of view, but in Word for Word's production the entire cast slips in here and there, sometimes picking up the narration in mid-sentence, sometimes hijacking the text mid-word to add their own inflection, their own perspective. The result is a kind of colorful pastiche of voices and characters, acting out a verbal tug-of-war over the script and the audience's attention.
At times, though, the description is a little extraneous, especially when the characters find themselves narrating their own movements up a stairwell or down a street, occasionally losing their breath as they do so. However even the stumbling over a line or a breathless delivery enhances the action and quickens the story's pace.
Laura Lowry renders Jerry (Angel Face) at once tough and endearingly vulnerable. And John Flanagan, Danny Wolohan, and Michael Patrick Gaffney add shade and character to the detectives and crooks they play, all of whom are almost interchangeable in Woolrich's original short story. Paul Finocchiaro plays an amazing Militis, the arch-villain Greek nightclub king, managing to cast him as a pathetic, lonely old man -- as sympathetic a character as a serial-murdering letch can be. Morgan Voeliger and Casey Jones Bastiaans both play multiple roles throughout the show, but shine best together in their performance-within-a-performance of the calypso song "Shame and Scandal," an opening act at the nightclub where Angel Face dances.
For those purists who like their noir dark and sinister, there might be a little too much tongue-in-cheek meta-humor in "Angel Face," but there's no doubt that Word for Word has teased out new possibilities for the noir stage, and added a whole new texture to a lost classic.
Angel Face runs through September 2, 2007 at Project Artaud Theater. For tickets and information visit zspace.org.