Cohesion Theatre tells a beguiling tale of true love and a curse in '13 Dead Husbands'

Tom Horan's "13 Dead Husbands" has been described as "darkly comedic" by the Cohesion Theatre, now presenting the play as a Baltimore premiere. But it's more accurately described as a fairy tale. As such, all questions of realism and surprise endings are moot. All that matters is if we're lured into an enchanted, enchanting world—and we are.

This is a story about a princess who suffers from a cruel curse and the multiple princes and knights who seek to break the curse, marry her, and live happily ever after. Well, sort of. Dee-Dee is not an actual princess. She's the waitress at a small cafe overlooking the Seine River in Paris, seemingly in the 1950s, when African hunters, circus acrobats, cowboys, and sea captains (all characters in the play) could still be celebrities.

Dee-Dee may live in a small apartment above the cafe, but she is being hunted by newspapers and fans who describe her as "the most beautiful woman in the world," famous for having buried a dozen ex-husbands within days of her taking their photo during each wedding. She wasn't directly responsible for the bizarre accidents, but she did get a reputation. Far from scaring suitors, she represents a challenge to any man who wants to prove his courage.

We meet three of those suitors at a table in her cafe. Marcel is a skinny Don Quixote figure in a black leather jacket, a struggling musician with the requisite sneer. Jean-Pierre is a roly-poly Sancho Panza figure in a nerdy yellow vest with a book of Sartre. Hubert is in a different league; wearing a gray, three-piece suit, he accurately describes himself as a "newspaper mogul and millionaire."

Several things don't add up, however. As Marcel, Matt Payne so overdoes the French accent and hipster pretension that he seems more cartoon than character. Bobby Henneberg similarly exaggerates Jean-Pierre's bland friendliness. And the 12 large photos of the ex-husbands that Dee-Dee describes as "smiling" are in fact quite dour.

Did director Brad Norris make a mistake in the casting? Did scenic designer Sebastian Sears make a mistake with the photos? These inconsistencies gnaw at us throughout the play till the very satisfying final scenes when we realize that these details reveal a tension beneath the play's fabulistic surface and that the casting and design were quite purposeful all along.

Anyone familiar with the rules of fairy tales won't have much trouble guessing which suitor will wind up with Dee-Dee. According to the same rules, all the characters must have their assumptions upended as they learn a lesson about true love. "13 Dead Husbands" plays by these rules, but the description of the show as "comedic" isn't inaccurate, for this fairy tale is thoroughly enjoyable—though it produces more charmed smiles than out-loud laughs.

As Hubert, Thom Sinn looks like a resurrected Toulouse-Lautrec with the trademark bowler hat, jaw-hugging beard and fat cigar. He informs Marcel that the latter doesn't stand a chance against Hubert's millions in the contest for Dee-Dee's hand. Marcel is inclined to believe him; so is Dee-Dee and so are her ex-husbands, who start talking from within their picture frames.

The production has plenty of wobbles along the way. The accents are all over the place, and some performers slip off the narrow fence between stylization and believability. The Napoleon Complex, the musical trio of Alicia Stanley, Nick Delaney, and Miranda Daughton who perform songs during scene changes and intermission, are hard to hear over the inevitable chatter. On the other hand, Norris' shadow-puppet projections in Dee-Dee's window are quite fetching.

This is the Cohesion Theatre's second show in its second different building. This one is staged at the Church on the Square in Canton's O'Donnell Square. Sears has transformed the church's sanctuary enough that you can imagine the cafe and Dee-Dee's apartment. And when she and Jean-Pierre hold a secret conversation through a cloud of red balloons in a nearby park, the image is so beguiling that you will forgive the show all its stumbles.

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