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A CurtainUp Review

Unbound: The Journals of Fanny Kemble
By Jenny Sandman

Am I to be held accountable for every word I've ever written?. . . No, only the ones you've written down. . . 
Like all of Prospect Theater Company's productions, Unbound is a luminous and thought-provoking play. It's an unconventional look at slavery, seen through the eyes of famous nineteenth-century actress Fanny Kemble.

Kemble part of the celebrated London theatrical family was put onstage at a young age and single-handedly managed to save Covent Garden with her portrayal of Juliet. She was subsequently brought to America for a whirlwind theatrical tour and was a smash success. She then met Pierce Butler, married for love and left the stage.

Her husband's family were rich aristocratis. The money came from a cotton and rice plantation in Georgia. Fanny tried to ignore the fact that her living was earned on the backs of 1,000 slaves, but when her husband took her to the plantation, she was confronted with the slaves' misery. Her journals record her horror of being unable to alleviate the suffering. Her husband Pierce turned a blind eye to the conditions of slavery, and she had no authority to free them or even to ease their punishments. She wrote of her clashes with the overseer and with local society, and the subsequent disintegration of her marriage. The journals were not published until many years later when had returned to the North and became an abolitionist.

The play isn't heavy-handed in its portrayal of slavery; it simply presents Fanny's point of view as recorded. The simplicity of the story is what makes it most powerful . The simple but inventive set -- a bare stagesurrounded by shelves holding simple white boxes -- underscores the play's message. As the play progresses and Fanny's journal grows, the boxes are removed, one or two at a time, revealing backlit portraits of slaves. By play's end, Fanny is both literally and figuratively surrounded by slavery. It's an eerie, haunting effect, made more so by the careful lighting and sound and by Naomi Wolf's costume design. The women wear only corsets, undershirts, and transparent crinolines. Only at the very end of the play does Fanny dress in actual clothing.

One of Prospect's strengths has traditionally been its compelling ensembles, and this play is no exception. Five different actresses play Fanny interchangeably throughout, moving seamlessly in and out of her scenes. You'd think five actresses would be a distraction, but this adaptation captures both Fanny's youthful innocence and the process of her disillusionment. David McCallum's direction highlights this, by keeping the pace lively and allowing Fanny's words (rather than her five representations) to take center stage.

This is a tender story that doesn't dwell on its heartbreak and is compellingly and engrossingly staged. . Kudos to Prospect Theater Company for another home run.

Editor's Note: The other "home run " to which Jenny referred above was the company's production of Belle's Stratagem . Another adaptation of Kemble's journals --Fanny Kemble -- was staged several summers ago as a solo show, notable mainly for its site specific location in Lenox where Fanny Kemble lived in a mansion currently home to Shakespeare & Company.

Written by Laura Marks
Conceived and directed by Davis McCallum
With Sandi Carroll, Beth Dixon, Cedric Hayman, Austin Jones, Laura Jordan, Peter McCain, Jenni-Lynn McMillin, and Michele Vasquez
Set Design by Sandra Goldmark
Lighting Design by Lucrecia Briceno
Costume Design by Naomi Wolf
Sound Design by Fitz Patton
Running time: Ninety minutes with no intermission
Prospect Theater Company, West End Theatre, 263 West 86th Street; 212-352-3101.
All tickets $15.
02/12/05 through 03/06/05
Reviewed by Jenny Sandman based on February 18th performance >
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