First Light Theater Company’s Thirst: A Spell for Christabel—a dark fairy tale about a pubescent girl living alone with her father in a drought-menaced wood—has a dog that’s just a piece of cardboard and some sound effects. The set’s two-dimensional trees are made of flimsy plywood. When torrents of water eventually cascade from them, they’re strips of paper with painted blue scrawls.
None of this bargain-basement mise en scene, however, explains how Elena Araoz’s production, staged at Here, manages to create such a bleedin’ un-enchanted forest. Those who make it through Coleridge’s 1800 epic poem “Christabel,” which inspired the script, will most likely conclude the play’s less-than-bewitching corniness is not the Englishman’s fault. Although the Gothic-Romantic poet couldn’t claim his verse to be exactly stark or pithy, he probably would have still cringed at Monika Bustamante’s overwrought adaptation, which seems somehow sodden with all the moisture absent from the apocalyptic climate where the characters languish.
Bustamante’s florid, awkward language provokes a flatly histrionic performance from Elizabeth Gross in the role of the repressed Christabel (she’s like Cinderella reconceived as a Freud patient). Meanwhile, experienced TV actor Mathew Cowles, who plays her hopelessly alcoholic father, oscillates uneasily between maudlin and outright campy. Lori Funk, as a mysterious visitor, manages to get some creepiness going with her fraught seduction of bi-curious Christabel. But uncovering her victim’s maidenly bosom quickly seems a gratuitous act, as the budding psychosexual drama withers behind a clichéd evil-stepmother tale. A half-hearted stab at introducing environmental themes later on is equally gratuitous.
The cast struggles mightily, but they just don’t appear to believe what they’re saying—nor, truth be told, in the entire enterprise.