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The severity of a blank stage sends a clear message to an audience: do not make assumptions. The Planet Ant late-night offering Henrietta Hermaline's Fall from Great Heights aims to keep the viewer guessing in just this way. In an abyss of black-painted walls and floor, a reality with so many incongruous elements lets the audience take nothing for granted and also insists that something must not be true — but just what that is remains withheld until the final moments.

Director Molly McMahon won this time slot for her work in the 2009 BoxFest showcase for women directors, which makes this scaled-back and female-centric piece seem rather fitting. The title character (Jill Dion) is a pathologically awkward, shy woman who finds little about herself interesting. She cannot believe any man would look twice at her, but one does, in the quite attractive form of Richard Prymus (Jonathan Davidson). He graciously indulges her desire to fly by taking her up in his small plane, and a romance of sorts is born. If this all sounds straightforward, consider the third character of Birdman (Richard Payton), the literally avian narrator. Do not make assumptions about a world in which a talking bird hails Henrietta Hermaline as his queen.

The script by Maggie Smith certainly raises questions as the story progresses, and McMahon adds to them by presenting a highly stylized interpretation of Henrietta and Richard. The characters are presented apparently as Henrietta sees them: herself the perpetual embodiment of that awful feeling after you've done something foolish; him a smooth, dashing, important man too good to be true. Davidson plays Richard with maximum warmth and tenderness, making it easy to understand how a dangerously manipulative person can get whatever he wants. As for Dion, she is perfectly in control of Henrietta's voice and movements, especially in funny asides performing sacred bird dances and songs, but the extremity of her ugly duckling affectations makes it feel like the actor is merely trying Henrietta on — creating the slightest barrier against full connection.

When Richard tires of Henrietta and breaks up with her, the story goes in a new direction entirely. She finds herself on the roof of her apartment building, surrounded by pigeons (several cheekily voiced by Payton). Birdman, in fact, somehow becomes the most real-seeming thing about the play, between Payton's bold physical choices and costume designer Cal M. Schwartz's captivating work with feathers. If anything is truly as it seems, surely it must be Birdman, who has been a faithful narrator and must know of which he speaks. As Henrietta becomes wrapped up in the world of the bird people, however, an edge of danger creeps in — is this fantasy? Reality? Something in between?

As with the setting, Neil Koivu's lighting design rarely points to things, letting the audience discover what's important to see. Sound design by Lindsay Michalik is allowed more freedom to provide atmosphere, primarily in the form of ambient noises. Finally, although I hate to be so uppity as to carp about program errors, here a misleading sentence required me to backtrack and reinterpret what I had just seen, a great detriment to my experience that I hope other viewers will not have to repeat. Be advised that Henrietta Hermaline is a one-act play lasting about 50 minutes, despite what the program may say about there being a 10-minute intermission. Trust me: wonderment about what the second act holds is not the frame of mind in which to take in this play's climactic scene. There is more than enough surprise and intrigue in this funny, quirky production to puzzle over without it.


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