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Underhay, Robertson dazzle in ‘The Strange Case of Madame D’ at LSPU Hall in St. John's

Local visual artist Rhonda Pelley created projections for local playwright Frank Barry's "The Strange Case of Madame D," on now at the LSPU Hall.
Local visual artist Rhonda Pelley created projections for local playwright Frank Barry's
ST. JOHN'S, N.L. —

Written and directed by local author Frank Barry, “The Strange Case of Madame D” is an exceptionally delightful treat for those who enjoy supporting local theatre. There’s always an extra bit of magic in locally produced shows from local people, and this show is absolutely enthralling.

Inspired by the works of feminist French writer Marguerite Duras — author of “The English Lover,” among others — “The Strange Case of Madame D” is the dark and disturbing story of murderess “Madame D” — D for Death — currently under psychiatric observation for her role in the brutal death of her housekeeper, Mary Louise.

The set — designed by Frank Barry, featuring projections by Rhonda Pelley, Barry’s partner, who introduced him to Marguerite Duras’ work — was comprised of an office/lab area for the doctor, a bedroom for Madame D and two chairs for one-on-one conversations.

Impressive in its dual simplicity and attention to detail, the audience watched intently as Doctor Albert attempted to unravel the mysteries of Madame D, though at times it seemed she would unravel him.

Nicole Underhay and George Robertson star as patient and doctor, the two-hander bringing the audience through a complex series of light conversations, mellow interrogations, heated discussions and, at times, screaming matches, as the doctor attempts to unravel the details of this murder mystery.

“The Strange Case of Madame D” isn’t quite a whodunit, however — it’s a “where is it?” kind of conundrum. “It” is Mary Louise’s decapitated head, and Madame D isn’t giving up that precious information without a long, hard fight.

Though surprisingly, she was able to articulate her method of body disposal – carrying “parcels” of dismembered Mary Louise “meat” to the bridge at night, dropping the cargo onto passing trains underneath.

This is just one excerpt from the many explicit details of Madame D’s childhood, life, love life, and of course, the murder. It should be noted that “The Strange Case of Madame D” lived up to its content warning. However, it wasn’t the details of this murderous psychopath’s life that disturbed me — it was Underhay’s absolutely stunning performance.

My millennial brain thought of Nancy Downs of “The Craft,” or the cast of 1999’s “Girl, Interrupted” — envision a wide-eyed manic woman, rambling, screaming, cackling and crying, in a hospital gown. It was electrifying, and at times, hard to watch.

At times, she was coherent and intelligible, divulging details of her life, and even details of the murder with a laissez-faire attitude. The doctor see-sawed between stoic composure and spitting-mad frustration.

Throughout this attempt to figure out exactly why Madame D would murder her “deaf and dumb” housekeeper — and how her husband and housekeeper kept from murdering her — a prominent question remained: “Where is Mary Louise’s head?”

As the show concluded, the audience was left to silently ponder another big question — “Is madness a motive, or an explanation?”

“The Strange Case of Madame D” has its final performance tonight at the LSPU Hall in St. John’s, starting at 8 p.m.

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