Archipelago Theatre co-founder Ellen Hemphill’s solo performance piece Stealing Home at Manbites Dog is a sultry and at times poignant cabaret reflecting on love, lust and lost chances. Though there are a number of theatrical touches, ranging from costume changes to symbolic props to video projection, the piece works best when Hemphill—and her voice—are front and center.
The opening moments, a creepy sing-speak version of Rosemary Clooney’s “Come On-A My House” with Hemphill behind a 3-D computer image of a rotating house, had me worried we were in for the equivalent of William Shatner’s stuttering “interpretations” of “Rocket Man” or “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” Thankfully, Hemphill soon breaks out her pipes with an energetic rendition of the song that gives way to an eclectic series of covers, as she interacts with the chairs and designer Tori Ralston's minimalist scenery of the set and various video scenes are projected behind and around her.
Thematically, many of the songs have to do with love and desire; Hemphill shows an amusing bit of range with a playful take on Sophie Tucker’s “I’m Living Alone and I Like It,” followed by a sultry rendition of Beyonce’s “Naughty Girl,” accompanied by a sensual piece of video projection (the film design is by Jim Haverkamp). She attains a similar mood with a haunting take on David Bowie’s “Bring Me the Disco King,” following it up with a poignant take on Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” and a punky version of Neil Young’s “Cowgirl in the Sand” (I could have done without the effect of sand falling from the ceiling, though).
Some numbers don’t quite work. A mash-up of Joni Mitchell’s “Down to You” with Buddy Johnson’s “Since I Fell for You” wedged in the middle doesn’t capture the sense of longing and heartbreak the piece aims for, while a rendition of Noel Coward’s “I Went to a Marvelous Party,” performed in a massively oversized party gown in a squeaky voice, feels like a strange tonal shift from the other numbers. While her performance of Tom Waits’ “Martha” around the show’s midpoint is a heartbreaker, the finale of “Come on Up to the House” suffers from an impression of Waits’ gravelly tone.
With her Glenn Close looks and emotive voice, Hemphill is a seasoned performer who gives the sometimes disparate songs in Stealing Home an emotional core (she also deserves kudos for quickly pulling off several dress changes without missing a beat). The more abstract aspects of the show, namely the video projections of various recorded scenes, often distract from rather than enhance the performance. Hemphill’s emotional voice and wistful body language are all the enhancement the songs need—and when the focus of Stealing Home is on her, it’s a first-rate show.