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A bizarre mystery wrapped in stagecraft at CPT

All inventors are a bit whacked out. To do their breakthrough work, they have to be innocent, courageous and arrogant — a heady brew when it works and pretty irritating when it doesn't.

This is particularly true when theatrical inventors are toying with stage conventions, as co-playwrights Raymond Bobgan and Chris Seibert do in the often-stunning Cut to Pieces, now at Cleveland Public Theatre. By taking an age-old trope of several people convened at a spooky mansion and twisting virtually everything thereafter, Bobgan (who also directs) and Seibert (who also performs) come up with a bounty of inspired moments, along with a few clinkers. 

On a bare stage dominated by a large video screen, we meet C.C. Bertie, a sweet and self-effacing young woman who tells us she is about to present her play. After an overture, which she hums, the screen shows a fireplace in the mansion's library, where six people have been gathered by the owner, Mr. Hades. He claims he is dying, and the guests, who mostly don't know each other, are there for the reading of the will.  

If you find the Hades symbolism less than subtle, just wait. There are enough feints and mysterious digressions in this two-hour production to satisfy anyone. Bertie disappears into the other characters, and when video carnage takes place, resembling the trailer for a slasher movie, we are told that a female guest has been raped and dismembered, but her various parts have vanished. 

It is left to the others, including a Nervous Girl, a young man who visits a witch and/or widow across the road and the killer himself to sort out the convoluted details. But don't expect any easy plotting trajectory here. This is weird but wonderful theatrical creation, and it is most fascinating when it is least understandable. 

Director Bobgan uses an avalanche of different staging tools — including live and often distorted video feeds (some from a table-top camera), typewriter type on the large screen, original music, and plastic and paper dolls. The videos, some designed by Tom Common, are strangely insinuating and allow Seibert to interact with them as if they are live performers. 

As the story unspools, the playwrights hitch onto the Hades and Persephone myth as they deal with the concepts of death and rebirth. Persephone embodies both, since she had to spend one season each year in the underworld. 

As the only live actor, Seibert is a marvel. Dressed in black with her hair pulled back into tight little knots, she plays all the parts and draws several telling characterizations, especially a strange TV-game-show host and Bertie herself. 

Some of the play's flow is hampered by Seibert announcing which character she is before delivering her lines.  And the individual who should be dominant in this gathering, Hades himself, is oddly the most forgettable. From a production standpoint, a few of the whiz-bang effects could have been edited back, since there is a feeling of sensory overload.  

But ultimately, Cut to Pieces has an innocent arrogance and an energetic spirit of invention that makes it a thoroughly memorable experience.

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September 23, 2020

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