The Mulberry Tree Variations

“The action flows like a dream,” in The Mulberry Tree Variations (2m, 2w), a long one-act done on a unit set representing an old house in London and a prison cell on a South Sea island in the first decade of the 20th century.  The set has no walls, with a bed, table, and lamp stage right, a wooden table with chairs down left, and a practical door up center.  In darkness we hear the sound of an old film projector and gradually see a strobe, flickering a very primitive silent film effect on the door as we hear Bach’s 13th Goldberg Variation played on an old piano.  We hear Jack’s voice describing a memory of a girl moving through the door into the room as Madchen, in a white dress, moves toward the audience and then off into the down left darkness.  The silent film effect ends as the music fades out and Jack and Petra appear in the doorway and move into the room talking about the similarity between the girl in a “cinematograph” Jack has gone to see night after night and a girl he used to know as “the jailer’s daughter.”  In answer to Petra’s questions, Jack says that he was in jail, that he murdered someone, and that the room looks uncannily familiar to him.  He says he was a sailor on a merchant ship in the South Seas, and as he speaks of that time Madchen appears DL as a waitress putting a tray of food on the round wooden table.  She speaks to Jack as he moves into her space, the jail, but Jack keeps explaining to Petra (in a different time) how he accidentally killed another sailor in a bar fight.  Madchen speaks to Jack of love and mortality and he speaks alternately to her and Petra.  Madchen asks about London and says she wishes she were there, voicing a question that appears in several Nigro scripts:  “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”  She tells Jack that if she dies before she gets to London she will haunt him there.  Petra comments on Madchen’s mental state as Madchen tells Jack and us about her parents and her love for books.  Madchen speaks of her grandfather who taught her never to put mulberries in her pocket.  She tells Jack that now would be an excellent time to kiss her, and he does, telling her that if she helps him escape from the jail he will take her to London with him.  Petra intrudes on this past event by telling Jack that he is a horrible person.  Madchen wants Jack to make love to her under the mulberry tree, and Petra asks him why he is telling her this.  He says she asked and thinks that he has to get out of the house that Petra has brought him to.  Jack tells Madchen they have to leave or the ship will sail without them, but she exits to get her diary.  Jack tells Petra that he had to jump in the water and swim to the ship and didn’t see Madchen again until he recognized her on the film.  Jack says he keeps a watch that Madchen gave him under the mulberry tree.  It was her grandfather’s and only runs backwards.  Jack can’t explain how Madchen could have been on the film but he thinks he recognizes the house and the door.  When Jack says something is on fire in his head, Petra thinks that Madchen is a lie that Jack made up.  Jack remembers his father as a horrible man, a scientist who invented a sort of motion picture camera to make a record of his experiments.  He asks Petra why she brought him to this place and she tells him how a man, some sort of doctor, came backstage after every show and talked with her.  Evans, “a distinguished and rather intimidating looking older man,” enters and sits in a chair.  Jack witnesses this scene as Petra witnessed the scene with Jack and Madchen.  When Petra tells Evans she is pregnant by an actor who has gone away, he invites her to stay in his house and have the child there.  He says his wife is dead and his son is gone.  Having no other options, Petra stayed in the house but dreamed that the dead man’s wife warned her to get away before the child was born.  But Petra gave birth and was told that the baby she thought was healthy had died during the night. She says she ran away but the man found her and paid her to find his son, Jack, and bring him to this house.  Evans tells Petra that Jack had suffered an injury to his head that made him forget things, and that as a child he was prone to violent fits of rage that made it necessary to lock him without food in a small, dark room.  Jack remembers his father finding him with a maid, Jenny.  Jack woke up on a merchant steamer and thinks the girl on the island reminded him of the maid.  Jack realizes that his father is going to kill both him and Petra because he thinks Jack knows about the older man’s experiments in the basement. Madchen enters, speaking a letter she is composing to the mulberry tree, describing her arriving in London and finding the house by the river Thames.  Evans, the father, asks her what she is doing in his house and she tells him she is engaged to Jack Evans and is carrying his child.  Evans says she can stay and help him with his research in cinematography and vivisection.  He leads her off DL and Jack tells Petra that the basement contains large bottles with heads of animals and corpses of infants floating in alcohol.  They hear a door slam and footsteps as Evans enters.  Jack accuses him of killing his mother, the maid, and Petra’s baby, but Evans tells them that he put something in the wine they drank that will make them relax and soon nothing will ever trouble them again.  Petra rushes at Evans and he puts the syringe on the table to grab her arms.  Jack says he cannot move or see properly and we hear again the sound of Bach’s 13th Goldberg Variation and see the flickering movie effect as Evans sits Petra on the bed next to Jack and rolls up Jack’s sleeve.  Madchen comes in the door as in the beginning and moves downstage to the table, picking up the syringe and plunging it into Evans’ neck.  He screams and falls on the floor.  Madchen tells Jack that he’ll be all right when the drug wears off, that the poison was in the syringe.  She says Evans let her live because she was carrying Jack’s baby and that she brought some mulberry tree seeds to plant in the back garden and raise a mulberry grove for their child to play in.  Petra says that Evans is dead and Madchen says that he will fit “quite nicely” into a large bottle in the basement.

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