Saturday, November 08, 2008

The Angel Eaters Trilogy (Angel Eaters, Rattlers, and 8 Little Antichrists)

Photos/Johnna Adams

After seeing all three parts of Johnna Adams's ambitious, generation-spanning Angel Eaters Trilogy, I can't shake the image of the playwright as a smarter version of the evil "Mama" who shows up in Part Three. She sits in a giant vat, but rather than absorbing nutrients, she takes in the pop culture of the last thirty years, and instead of churning out clones and selling them for organs, she fires out plays. Her distinct voice shines through this batch of trips: comic exposition often well-hidden by clever circumstances. Nor are her jumping genres striving to be August Wilson; instead, Adams is writing for Goldilocks. One play does too little, failing to develop its characters and leaping to an abrupt ending (Angel Eaters); one play does too much, with characters flailing all over the place (Antichrists); and one manages to be just right, finding a middle ground that captures the Southern Gothic vibe and runs with it (Rattlers). Each play succeeds (and fails) on its own, which means there's something for everyone, especially fans of Flux Theatre Ensemble, who will spend twenty days straight being just as ambitious as Adams.

Angel Eaters

The first part, Angel Eaters (which most appropriately appropriates the rickety wooden set), takes place in Oklahoma, 1937, as we meet the cursed Hollister family. Myrtle (Catherine Michele Porter) is in mourning for her husband; her older daughter, Nola (Tiffany Clementi) is drinking turpentine to wash her baby out; and her youngest, Joann (Marnie Schulenburg), thinks that birds are angels, which is great for the local ornithologist, Doc O'Malley (Ken Glickfeld), who gets to play games like "bird in the bush" with her. There's a con artist named Fortune (Gregory Waller), too, and he's selling resurrections courtesy of his "nephew," Enoch (Isaiah Tanenbaum). None of these, as evinced by the lurking, black-eyed Azazyel (Cotton Wright) have to do with the curse: like on the HBO show Carnivale, the real problem is that Joann's latent power to resurrect things comes with a terrible price, a price which unfortunately explodes in a Tales from the Crypt ex machina sort of way.

In truth, Johnna Adams appears to be stretching through most of Angel Eaters, first evoking the depression-era atmosphere (nicely colored by lighting designer Jennifer Rathbone), and then slowly building up Joann's character, enough to make us feel sorry for her victimization. But she leaps into implausible scenes, making Fortune the father of Nola's kid, and turning Enoch into a one-dimensional sounding board: chained up to the Hollister porch as collateral on the resurrection, he's able to listen and watch in fear, but is never given any room to grow. In the climax, characters flip their motivations on a dime, with O'Malley giving Fortune a small fortune to clear out of town, but then showing up with a gun to make sure that he does--not to mention the fact that nobody seems to think they can outrun a 60-year-old with an ax.

And yet, Angel Eaters strings us along on its unconvention, led by Marnie Schulenburg's ability to play a clueless character in a sympathetic way, and by director Jessi D. Hill's use of space and timing, creating an odd mystical tension while at the same time rooting firmly into familar Southern territory. It's a mark of good direction (and swift pacing) that we spend so much time being entertained by relatively soulless characters.


Being dragged over to a wooden box filled with rattlesnakes while you're bound and gagged is never a good way to start your day, but it's a great way to start a play, and in Rattlers, Johnna Adams finds her bite, sinking her teeth in quicker than the eye can follow, and never letting up. The unfortunate victim here is Osley (Jason Paradine), and he's been kidnapped by his ex-girlfriend Ernelle (Amy Lynn Stewart) and her hyperactive boyfriend Snake (Scott Drummond); they expect him to resurrect Ernelle's murdered sister, regardless of the cost. Meanwhile, at the funeral home, Ernelle's brother-in-law, the rascal Everett (Richard B. Watson), is having a casual conversation with the creepy undertaker, Ted (Matthew Crosby), in which it seems more and more likely that one of them is the murderer. And in yet another connected but distant scene, Ernelle's mother, Mattie (Jane Lincoln Taylor) is looking for vengeance, although Shane (David Jackson) is hoping she'll just accept his devoted love instead.

By splitting the action (Jerry Ruiz's direction helps it hop along), Adams is able to do her entire trilogy on a micro level, from the comic horrors that the Bonnie and Clyde-like Snake and Ernelle are cooking up to the morbid romance between Shane and Mattie, and the True Blood-like subtexts in the easygoing twangs between Everett and Ted. It also gives her a chance to really focus on more than exposition--there's less plot and more character development, and that's a gift given the outstanding actors, every last one of them, in this production. Things amble along, instead of rushing to conclusions, and part of the fun in Rattlers is trying to guess what these tight-lipped characters will do next (or, with Snake, what he won't do).

Adams has a terrific voice, and her stories actually work on multiple levels. For instance, Ted's tale about sleeping next to the corpse of his obsession is rooted in the subtext in Everett's face as he listens--after all, he was married to her. The same goes for the look of resignation in Shane's eyes when he realizes that the woman he loves has drugged him, or the way Ernelle's good humor evaporates when she realizes that threatening to hurt Osley's daughter won't help--that she'll have to kill one girl to bring back another. This last bit captures the full effect of the trilogy, too: what price won't we pay to get back the ones we love?

8 Little Antichrists

If 8 Little Antichrists is supposed to be taken seriously--which it might seem, if you've seen the first two parts of the trilogy--then it has some very hefty problems. Thankfully, Flux takes it only as seriously as it needs to--and the thought of black-winged angels facing off bloody-horned heroes in California, 2028, is already sort of ridiculous--and takes a tongue-in-cheek approach that lets us suspend our disbelief in a cheesy Max Headroom sort of future.

The hero this time around is a Philip K. Dick-brand detective, Claudia (Candice Holdorf), who is investigating the death of her clone sister, Sara Jane, only to find that there may be more to the murder than she suspects. Along the way, she falls for one of the suspects, Jeremy (Zack Robidas), but not before he is kidnapped by fallen angels Sem and Zaz (Felicia Hudson and Elise Link, channeling a fashionably authoritative Mod Squad vibe) and forced to resurrect the octuplet antichrists, cloned from the Dahmers and Gengis Khans of the world. To make things more convoluted, the clone mother is Claudia's Mama (Nora Hummel), a self-obsessed nag who lives in a nutrient-pumping vat and dreams of the day when she'll have sold enough of her offspring to upgrade. Oh, and Jeremy's paranoid sister, Melanie (Rebecca McHugh) has actually found the vessel of God in a happy meal--if only she can pry it away from the Clockwork Orange-like drizz-heads, Thump and Fibber (Jake Alexander and Joe Mathers, high-octane comic relief). Cue the over-the-top action.

8 Little Antichrists is the most creative of Johnna Adams's trilogy, but all her inventive satire is totally caught up in the relentless (and nonsensical) plot. The clever observations--for instance, Sony's Worker Retrieval Program, which copyrights the DNA of productive employees for future use--don't mesh with action sequences in which Holdorf plays at least four different clone versions of herself as they battle one another in a fight sequence that would make Qui Nguyen jealous (though by no means intimidated). This dystopic future is frightening enough without Sem and Zaz harmonizing their ode to Satan, nor is there room for romance. After a while, the self-satire runs on fumes, although August Schulenburg certainly gives it his all as Ezekiel, managing to savor hammy lines like "Evil is a hobby of mine" right up there with Mr. Applegate himself. But to stick with Damn Yankees, for a moment, you gotta have heart, and for all the energetic laughs, this play doesn't have one.

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