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The D.H. Lawrence novel Women in Love gets roughed up in Barton Bund's original adaptation (of the same name) for the Blackbird Theatre — characters, scenes, plot points are stripped away to get at the story Bund wants to tell. Personally, I never read the book and chose to go in fresh; my limited knowledge of the source material comes from later Web research, spurred by a curious program synopsis whose long exposition, to my surprise, never played out onstage. What does unfold readily challenges and sustains the viewer over the two hours of this production, which Bund also directs, but it does not completely eliminate the sensation that something is missing.

This feeling of absent context is unintentionally supported by an otherwise cool and innovative set (Bund again). Fabric pieces stretch abstractly into the newly black corners of the SH\aut\ Cabaret and Gallery, providing a neutral backdrop that pops in concert with Sarah Lucas's targeted lighting design. Set apart from the blank shapes and one multipurpose chaise are the myriad details and patterns of Dana Sutton's magnificent costumes, which merge the suggestion of early-1900s period with eye-catching Eastern influences in a tight overall concept. Still, the rewardingly complex visuals of the performers and performances themselves, in contrast to the general dearth of properties and the black-dominated surroundings, seem to emphasize that the background's been cut out of this picture.

Despite the title, the story of the play is equally concerned with the men loved as with the women who love them. Hypercontemplative Rupert (Steven O'Brien) gains both a wife in adoring Ursula (Jamie Weeder) and a best friend in wealthy Gerald (Jon Ager), who consequently falls for Ursula's sister, free-wheeling artist Gudrun (Luna Alexander). Trouble in paradise begins to emerge as Rupert champions the concept of, essentially, a male soul mate to supplement his romantic one. Ursula struggles to reconcile Rupert's needs with her own role in his life, and Gerald does not seem to find the same solace as Rupert does in him when the affair with Gudrun sours. Eva Rosenwald hangs around as Rupert's former flame, and bohemian Bund and Analea Lessenberry are thrown into the mix on the crew's few excursions, but the intense focus on the four primary characters suggests that the supporting roles are ancillary, retained only because they were required to advance particular scenes.

Adapting a novel for the stage is a challenge for its performers, expected to fully flesh out their characters and deliver long, prose-y text all without the benefit of the narration. Here, Lawrence's often-philosophical discourse retains a definite literary feel, but is delivered with care by the entire cast. Mostly sweet and passive, Weeder shows a wicked spark when Ursula finally lets herself get emotional. Alexander carries a boozy aura of untethered ease without coming off as too superior or disaffected, which pays off when Gudrun's interest turns to disinterest with little effort. However, O'Brien and Ager demand recognition as the central relationship, conversing earnestly just as easily as they joke together, always toeing the line of a possible physical attraction. In one of the best scenes in the play, the men strip off their clothes and have a wrestling match (the Blackbird's not kidding with those "mature content" warnings), but even then, the characters' uncertain feelings and questions about the nature of their relationship are laid barer than their skin in a wonderfully vulnerable moment.

This Women in Love is a think piece about relationships, romantic and otherwise, and an inventive exercise in storytelling, despite the encroaching negative space of missing story elements and physical vacuum. Although the production's aim for a timeless, universal feel falls a bit short, this is nevertheless a thrilling treatment of Lawrence's daring subject matter, inviting scrutiny as well as intrigue.


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