James Comtois on Rattlers

Thursday, November 20, 2008 0 comments

Playwright, reviewer and Nosediver James Comtois returned to the Trilogy last night to see Rattlers after his lovely review of Angel Eaters two weeks ago. He has good things to say about Rattlers, and returns tonight to see the final installment, 8 Little Antichrists. Shouldn't you join him? As always, highlights and pics to follow!

(Photo: Justin Hoch. Pictured: Snake's garage, set by Caleb Levengood, lights by Jennifer Rathbone)

By James Comtois

With Rattlers, the second play in the Angel Eaters trilogy, writer Johnna Adams has upped the ante that she placed with the first play, Angel Eaters, by simultaneously expanding the mythology established in the first piece and creating a compelling self-contained play that's part character study, part murder mystery and part supernatural revenge thriller. I'd go so far to say that it's even better than Angel Eaters.

(Photo: Justin Hoch. Pictured: Jason Paradine, Scott Drummond)

In Rattlers, which takes place in Oklahoma in 1975 (38 years after the events depicted in Angel Eaters), we're essentially watching three separate stories centering around the same dead woman. The first story deals with Snake (Scott Drummond), a very dangerous redneck who keeps crates of rattlesnakes, who has kidnapped Osley Clay (Jason Paradine) at the request of his girlfriend, Ernelle (Amy Lynn Stewart), and Osley's ex. Ernelle's sister has been brutally murdered, and knows that Osley has the ability to resurrect the dead, but unbeknownst to her, at a horrible price. Osley has disavowed his powers and become a man of the cloth, but Ernelle and Snake aren't taking no for an answer.

(Photo: Justin Hoch. Pictured: Amy Lynn Stewart, Scott Drummond)

I should point out here that I imagine that it's just as fun and fascinating to go into Rattlers unaware of the events that transpired in the first play in the trilogy, Angel Eaters, as it is to go in (as I did) knowing Osley's family tree and dark powers (he's the son of Nola and Fortune and nephew of Joann from the first play).

(Photo: Justin Hoch. Pictured: Matthew Crobsy, Richard B. Watson)

The second story concerns two men who meet at the dead woman's wake: Ted (a very funny and very creepy Matthew Crosby), the sad and milquetoast undertaker who had been in love with the departed since he was a kid, and Everett (Richard B. Watson), the young woman's drunken chain-smoking husband. As they talk, we slowly and steadily learn their back-stories and relationships to the young woman, which of course isn't quite what we've been expecting.

(Photo: Justin Hoch. Pictured: David Jackson, Jane Lincoln Taylor)

The third story centers around the young woman's mother, Mattie (Jane Lincoln Taylor), who's fraught with grief and consumed with a need for revenge on whomever killed her daughter. Ted's brother Shane (David Jackson) is a young man - or, to be more accurate, boy - who is madly in love with her and vows to do anything for Mattie (he mows her lawn). And Mattie figures he may be the perfect person to manipulate into helping her get her revenge.

(Photo: Justin Hoch. Pictured: Jason Paradine)

Any one of theses stories would make for a taught and compelling self-contained one-act, but Adams the Flux Theatre Ensemble have created something much more ambitious, and the ambition has paid off. Each of these elements to Rattlers complement and build off each other (and Angel Eaters) beautifully to create a portrait of individuals bound by grief, fate and evil forces beyond their control. Again, you don't need to see the first play to enjoy Rattlers, but it does add to the enjoyment if you have.

(Photo: Justin Hoch. Pictured: Jane Lincoln Taylor, David Jackson)

I loved the sense of suspense that the story slowly and steadily builds and the way information was slowly doled out to the audience. I loved the slight nods to events from the previous play (like the references to birds sounding like angels). I loved the way the elements of the supernatural creeps naturally into the play. I loved how your perceptions of Ted and Everett change as they tell their stories to each other and how their exchanges were simultaneously hilarious and ghastly (Watson's delivery of one line when he's asked how he and Ted knew the deceased is just priceless). And I loved that final image that the play gives us (thanks to not only Adams but director Jerry Ruiz and actress Becky Kelly).

(Photo: Justin Hoch. Pictured: Becky Kelly, David Jackson)

I guess I'm trying to say that I loved this play.

Rattlers definitely left me wanting more. Fortunately, I do have more: I'll be seeing the third piece, 8 Little Antichrists, tonight. I can't wait.

(Photo: Justin Hoch. Pictured: Amy Lynn Stewart, Scott Drummond)

Rattlers is playing in rep with Angel Eaters and 8 Little Antichrists at the Wings Theatre until November 22. Tickets are $18 per show, or $40 for the three-show combo. For tickets click here.

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New Theater Corps' Amanda Halkiotis on Rattlers

This review escaped my notice at first, but the intrepid Dr. Watson posted it on Facebook and brought it to my attention. It's a good review of Rattlers written by a new reviewer for the Corps, Amanda Halkiotis, and interestingly, she spells Johnna Adams' name as Johnna Abrams (perhaps an accidental auto-spell check correction?). I have corrected that misspelling, and posted the highlights, along with new pictures, below. Last night we had our biggest house yet, a rocking audience for Rattlers, and we close this Saturday, so get your tickets today!

Reviewed by Amanda Halkiotis, New Theater Corps
This new murder mystery by Johnna Adams is full of quick thrills that keeps its audience guessing. Scene for scene, its snappy dialogue and unique characters make it an edge-of-your seat kind of evening. For those among us who take our comedy black with a twist and a dash of bitters.
(Photo: Justin Hoch. Pictured: Jason Paradine, Amy Lynn Stewart)

Johnna Adams’ Rattlers, the second in a supernatural trilogy, brings Greek tragedy to 1970s Oklahoma. In one corner, a pastor named Osley (Jason Paradine) is kidnapped by his high-school sweetheart Ernelle (Amy Lynn Stewart) and her new beau Snake (Scott Drummond). They want him to use his demonic powers to resurrect Ernelle’s murdered younger sister. Taking center stage, the townie funeral director, Ted (Matthew Crosby), and the big-city, reserved, husband Everett (Richard B. Watson) stand outside a funeral parlor discussing the woman they both loved. Lastly, we have Ernelle’s mother Mattie (Jane Lincoln Taylor), a shrewd, tough-as-nails single mother who spends the evening of her daughter’s wake seeking revenge instead of shedding tears. In an effort to uncover the truth she appeals to Ted’s naïve younger brother Shane (David Jackson), taking full advantage of his obvious crush on her.

(Photo: Justin Hoch. Pictured: David Jackson, Jane Taylor)

The ensemble works well together, creating a sense of consistency across the alternating storylines. Specifically, Richard B. Watson and Amy Lynn Stewart give excellent performances as a widower struggling not to show his grief and a desperate, bereaved sister. A man’s man through and through, right down to the squinty gaze and long cigarette drags, Mr. Watson takes his time with his lines. His use of dry, well-timed punch lines and cocky body language always keep him the center of attention.

(Photo: Justin Hoch. Pictured: Richard B. Watson)

As for Ms. Stewart, when she enters in a clingy halter dress and worn red high heels that make her at least as tall as the other men onstage, she grabs our attention right from the start. With solid eye contact and an unquavering, stubborn tone, she makes known her sadness but keeps it in check enough so it never comes across as weakness.

(Photo: Justin Hoch. Pictured: Amy Lynn Stewart, Scott Drummond)

Ms. Adams’ comic timing and effective one-liners contribute to the quick pace of this short piece. This wit, combined with the play’s empathetic humanity, helps the audience to easily follow the different threads...

(Photo: Justin Hoch. Pictured: (kinda) Matthew Crosby, Richard B Watson)

Overall, Rattlers stands on its own as original theater, taking creative license with its source material instead of simply regurgitating the themes of good and evil. The expert cast and sparkling humor keep this play entertaining, despite the plot’s loose ends. If you’re looking for a quick fix of mysticism and murder with a splash of religion for good measure, you’ll enjoy the wholehearted efforts of the Flux Theater Ensemble.
(Photo: Justin Hoch. Pictured: Scott Drummond, Jason Paradine, Amy Lynn Stewart)
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nytheatre.com Pick of the Week!

Monday, November 17, 2008 0 comments

nytheatre.com has made The Angel Eaters Trilogy their Pick of the Week!

(Photo: Johnna Adams. Pictured: Jake Alexander, Joe Mathers)
We are all very excited and grateful to Michael Mraz, Martin and Rochelle for the honor. AND...it is well timed as this is your last week to see the shows!
(Photo: Justin Hoch. Pictured: Marnie Schulenburg, Tiffany Clementi)
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Zack Calhoon's Visible Soul on Angel Eaters

Talented playwright and actor (and recent Flux Sunday recipient) Zack Calhoon gave the first play in the trilogy a really nice shout out on his blog, Visible Soul - you can check it out here or read on below!

(Photo: Justin Hoch. Pictured: Cotton Wright)

Angel Eaters

by Zack Calhoon
As evidenced by my last post, I had the great honor of seeing one of the most dynamic new theatrical voices of the 1990's: Sarah Kane. I thought it would be pretty hard to top an experience like that for some time, but tonight I saw one of the most exciting young playwright's writing in New York right now: Johnna Adams. It was the perfect compliment to a wonderful weekend of theatregoing. Rarely has a play kept the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end for entire 90 minutes. I'm absolutely dying to see the second and third installments of the Angel Eaters Trilogy being presented by Flux Theatre Ensemble through Thursday.

I'm actually at a loss to describe how deeply Ms. Adams's soulful poetry affected me. I was especially struck by the desperation that permeates this theatrical feast. I was especially moved by a young little powerhouse actress named Marnie Schulenberg and the spine tingling stage presence of Cotton Wright. Ms. Schulenberg's riveting performance as the "simple-minded" and spiritually gifted Joann moved me to tears on more than one occasion. Although every single character was imbued with deep desperation and wonderful humor. I absolutely loved this show. She made me want to go home and write!

I never thought I'd say this twice in one day, but:

Run, don't walk, to see these shows!

(Photo: Justin Hoch. Pictured: Tiffany Clementi, Gregory Waller)
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Theatre Knights' Toby Thelin on the Trilogy

A really lovely write-up from theatre renaissance man Toby Thelin on his blog, Theatre Knights. It feels like we've turned the corner with the Trilogy, and Toby's review, along with the energy at this Saturday's marathon, reminded us why we took on such a daunting project in the first place. Only one week left - check it out!

(Photo: Justin Hoch. Pictured: Cotton Wright)
These plays make me happy. Let me say that again, in case it's not clear: The three plays by Johnna Adams making up The Angel Eaters Trilogy (Angel Eaters, Rattlers, and 8 Little Antichrists), currently running at The Wings Theater and produced by Flux Theatre Ensemble, make me extremely happy. I'll say it again before this review is over, but I walked out of each of these shows feeling so friggin' happy I didn't know what to do with myself. Seldom has a theater experience left me feeling so fulfilled, and in such a downright pleasant and generally, no, specifically, good mood, and when questing for the reason, I had to ask myself why?
(Photo: Justin Hoch. Pictured: Gregory Waller, Tiffany Clementi)
Which is not to say these plays were perfect, by any means. Yes, this was truly one of the most uplifting and satisfying theater experiences of my life. Yes, I feel like a giddy adolescent fanboy geek about to launch into a discourse on the timelessness of the original Star Wars trilogy. Yes, I want everybody I've ever met, known, or had any contact with to drop what they are doing and rush out to see these shows NOW!!! But why?
(Photo: Justin Hoch. Pictured: Rebecca McHugh)
I'll start, as I usually do, with the scripts. While comprising a set of linked stories, each play stands on it's own. However, the full experience is so satisfying, I have to encourage you to see all three shows, preferably in chronological order, but see them however you can (although the third play does include numerous references to the previous two pieces that make it highly amusing). Johnna Adams' writing is crystalline; she is a real pro, exhibiting a mastery of craft that is refreshing in it's familiarity. Everything feels like something I've seen, but it's not; watching these shows lulled me into comfortability, then snatched me by the throat and dragged me into a completely unexpected place. The styles of each piece were different, sometimes completely so, but the world created was linked in such a seamless manner that it just felt right. Yes, Angel Eaters, being set in Oklahoma in the era of the Great Depression, did conjure fleeting reminisences of Steinbeck and The Rainmaker, while Rattlers 70's era characters sometimes evoked those films that inspired Quentin Tarantino at his best, and 8 Little Antichrists slightly futuristic end-of-daysing had enough pop culture references to make my head nearly spin like Linda Blair's (I particularly was amused by a scene riffing on the sci-fi brilliance of Ridley Scott); the beauty of the scripts are that they work entirely on their own with no referencing to what has come before (except you really should know about the Empire of Disney for some of the jokes in the third play to land successfully). Adams has managed to take an ages old tale of good vs. evil and make it refreshingly her own. And dammit, these plays would make a kick-ass mini-series on the Sci Fi Network, and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible.
(Photo: Justin Hoch. Pictured: Scott Drummond, Jason Paradine)
Before continuing to rave on and on, and repeating over and over that I am still so freaking happy about these shows, I should do my duty as a critic and theater artist and get my complaints out of the way so I can move on to the good stuff. Since I raved about the scripts, I should point out that there were some places I wasn't as happy with, and it may have been due to the writing, or the acting, or even the staging, though I tend to think it was probably a combination of elements. While I found most of the second play, Rattlers, hilarious, there were a couple of characters and scenes that felt a little unnecessary. As much as I rail against needless exposition, in these case I would have preferred those characters to be cut completely, and the necessary info to have been inserted via the dreaded exposition, because the play kind of stalled when veering away from the relationships I cared about (more on that later). In general, the acting was at a particularly good level with few exceptions, and I tend to be forgiving towards actors who seem a little out of place (they are being given the opportunity to learn from those around them; yes, I was an acting teacher too at one point). Each of these shows has performances that are a little rough around the edges, especially compared to the polish of some of the better performers. At the same time, there are some actors that are downright surprising in their ability to start off seeming to be one thing, and transforming into something completely and delightfully other. The third play, 8 Little Antichrists, suffered the most in its ambition, with sequences that are very difficult to evoke using the magic of stagecraft; what worked, worked well, what didn't thankfully didn't detract from the rest of the show, and was more than made up for by goddam cheerfulness of whole proposition. Never has the apocalypse been orchestrated in such an obtuse way, but such a delightful ringmaster.
(Photo: Johnna Adams. Pictured: Joe Mathers, Jake Alexander, Rebecca McHugh)
Alright, I'm starting to rave again, and I was talking about what I didn't like. On to what I did: the set, designed by Caleb Levengood, was wonderful, and transformed beautifully from show to show. The lights and costumes did their jobs, but the sound design sort of punched me in the face, and it was such a good pain. Usually I want to not notice design elements, I want them unobtrusive, I don't want to be sitting there thinking "that was a beautiful light transition", but in these plays the sound design was so important and necessary, and Asa Wembler did a remarkable job, not only with the supporting sounds and ambience, but with the selection of music, which can sometimes make or break a show (my apologies if someone else picked the music, but it was darn good, whoever chose it).
(Photo: Justin Hoch. Pictured: Isaiah Tanenbaum)
Finally, the acting: there were so many excellent performances, but I want to mention a few specifically. In Angel Eaters, Gregory Waller nearly ran away with the show with his nuanced performance of Fortune Clay; Marnie Schulenburg was sometimes innocent, sometimes creepy, in the best possessed way; and Cotton Wright's appearances as Azazyel made me wish that she could have appeared in all the shows, a stunning combination of presence, showmanship, and make-up that left me wanting more. The Rattlers cast was full of brilliance, but the chemistry ignited between Matthew Crosby's Ted and Richard B. Watson's Everett was electrifying, the sorts of performance that can lead to an actor having to start memorizing speeches about who they'd like to thank; every line, every expression, was a pearl, and the audience was so mesmerized by these two characters that applause spontaneously erupted at the end of their first scene (they also managed to pull audience members out of their seats for a standing ovation at the end, a testament to their remarkable performances and the amazing relationship between these men crafted by Ms. Adams' words). In the final show, 8 Little Antichrists, Candice Holdorf had the lion's share of the work, playing six different characters, three of which end up in a Matrix-esque battle with each other in one of the most entertaining scenes I can ever remember in a theater. Jake Alexander and Joe Mathers were very much fun to watch as the convicts Thump & Fibber, and Zack Robidas was one of those very pleasant surprises, delivering a quite literally transformative performance as Jeremy. But the gem of the evening was August Schulenburg as the mysterious(?) Ezekiel; yes, he may have been channelling a little Mike Myers & Jim Carey, and more than a little Pee-Wee Herman (sorry, I meant Paul Reubens), but that certainly didn't take away from the fact that he was frikkin' HI-larious. His performance, his timing, his delivery were so spot-on I was shivering with anticipation for the next amazing thing that would happen while he was on stage.
(Photo: Justin Hoch. Pictured:Richard Watson, Matthew Crosby)
Alright, so, all in all, one of the best theatre experiences... ever! You must see these shows! They are more than entertaining, they are Entertainments with a capital E! Congratulations Flux and Johnna!

(Photo: Johnna Adams. Pictured: Candice Holdorf)
For schedule & ticket info, visit www.fluxtheatre.org. The Angel Eaters Trilogy continues thru November 22 at The Wings Theatre, 154 Christopher Street Read the full story

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Bilerico's Jason Tseng on the Trilogy

Friday, November 14, 2008 0 comments

A nice review from Jason Tseng at Bilerico, a cool LGBTQ group blog. Highlights with pics below!
Johnna Adams' epic three-part work The Angel Eaters Trilogy follows the heartbreaking, complex, and chilling story of a family bloodline, cursed with the ability to raise the dead, with horrific consequences. While at face value, the synopsis of The Angel Eaters Trilogy, which is comprised of The Angel Eaters, Rattlers, and 8 Little Anti-Christs, is reminiscent of pulp horror films that provided years of kitschy bloody delight for a generation of film-goers, Adams' work gives a nod towards the horror genre, but moves beyond the form's limitations and provides a body of work that is mythic, complex and inquisitive.

Flux Theatre Ensemble, ever the ambitious indie-theatre group, has remarkably launched a veritable festival of theatre, performing all three of Adams' plays in rep on a rotating schedule everyday for nearly a month (each saturday offers a marathon-style line-up allowing you to catch all three plays in one day). Performances are at Wings Theatre (154 Christopher Street New York, NY). More information, including ticket sales at fluxtheatre.org. Check out the review after the jump.

Angel Eaters

Johnna Adams opens with Angel Eaters, the eponymous play of her trilogy. Set in the desolate landscape of Oklahoma's dustbowl during the Great Depression, Adams stitches together a tale that is both fantastical and bone-chillingly present. Angel Eaters establishes much of the lore and context for the subsequent plays in the trilogy. She dips into the Judeo-Christian mythos that surrounds the angelic mysticism that lives deep within the Christian faith, and in many ways precedes it. By tapping into this well-spring of transformational and mysterious energy, Adams comments on the very fabric of faith itself, and raises questions on other parallel stories and the external forces that shape our very souls.

In Angel Eaters we are introduced to Joanne (Marnie Shulenburg), a sweet but slow girl ("simple-minded" as they say in the play). With the recent death of Joanne's father, her sister Nola (Tiffany Clementi) trying to induce an abortion by ingesting turpentine, and her mother (Catherine Michele Porter) hiring some Carnival con men to resurrect her husband, Joanne's family life has been thrown into chaos. Joanne turns to conversing with angels through birdsong, convinced it is the tongue of angels. While the idea of idly conversing with an ominous voice in your head that whispers a secret history of sacred horns might seems disturbing, it seems like a natural response for a young girl with mental problems dealing with familial strife. Adams writes Joanne exceptionally well, capturing her innocence and naivety as well as her dangerous and seductive zealousness. While it might have been easy to write-off Joanne as your typical "disturbed girl" caricature, I was drawn into her selflessness and tragic fate.

When Joanne's mother, a pragmatic and axe-wielding enforcer chains up one of the carnies dubbed "Resurrection Boy" to the porch as collateral for the successful resurrection of her husband, the plot begins to thicken as it is revealed that Fred "Fortune" Clay, the brains behind the resurrection scam is the former lover and father of Nola's unborn child. Fortune plots with Nola to free his partner, Enoch, and make away with Nola's mother, Myrtle's money. Meanwhile, Joanne works as a laundress for the pawing but gentle-hearted Doc O'Malley who, as an avid birdwatcher, teaches Joanne the different birdcalls and what they mean. Doc's lessons are interspersed with strangely loving sexual abuse, getting Nola to play "games" like "Bird in the Bush." Despite being disgusted by the Doc's actions, his affection for Joanne seems sincere.

As the play quickens, it becomes painfully clear that Enoch will be unable to raise Joanne's father. It is revealed however, that Joanne herself is able to resurrect small animals, and has been doing so for some time under the guidance from the Angels she converses with. After terrifying Enoch with a display of her powers, reanimating a dead chicken, the inevitability of her using her abilities on her father becomes apparent. But as Joanne careens towards her inevitable tragic fate, the angel (Cotton Wright) informs her that in order to raise her father she must eat off his body and in doing so, consume his goodness, and fight god back to bring her father back. Joanne's choice to appease her mother's obsession with resurrecting her husband pits her blind faith against the security of her family. Against the backdrop of the Oklahoman dustbowl, it becomes evident that her choice was one of desperation.

Angel Eaters plays out like a well constructed modern Greek tragedy. From the onset of the play, we know where its going. We know that Joanne will be presented with a profound moral choice and everything along the way reinforces the palpable sense of anticipation when we finally see Joanne grow her horns. I have to say that the final action in the play was so intense, I cringed... in that deeply satisfying scary movie kind of cringe. You know you've seen something good when you feel that chill creep up your spine.


Adams finds a grittier and more twisted perspective on humanity in Rattlers, which picks up almost 40 years later with Joanne's (Angel Eaters) nephew, Osley Clay. EverettGivesTedASmoke.jpegOsley's high school girlfriend, Ernelle comes out of his past with aptly-named rattle-snake wrangling boyfriend, Snake. They kidnap Osley to convince him to raise Ernelle's recently deceased sister, who was bludgeoned to death on the side of the road. Osley, who has forgone the dark ways of his twin brother, Rooster, and become a Preacher refuses to participate in the ritual, insisting that Ernelle's sister will come back wrong and evil. Ernelle, the sassy yet dark diva that she is, insists on Osley's cooperation, threatening his daughter's life with one of Snake's pet rattlers.

Meanwhile at the funeral home where Ernelle's sister Katherine is having her viewing. Ted, a childhood friend of Katherine's and the undertaker, and Everett, her husband, two men who knew and loved Katherine reminisce about the woman they both knew. Both men share in their heartache with strangely quotidian conversation. As each reveals more about himself to the other, the more clear it is that a murderer lies among them.

And finally, to complete the triptych of Adams' play, Mattie, Katherine's mother, searches for revenge with the very young and attractive Shane, Ted's younger brother and desperate suitor of Mattie's affection. While Mattie fends off Shane's relentless desire, she digs deeper into the mystery of her daughter's death and closer to the vengeance she intends to exact on its perpetrator. An eye for an eye, indeed.

Rattlers succeeds where Angel Eaters fails in that this play is not tethered down with the need to establish lore or provide lengthy exposition. We jump straight into the action. Again, we get a great build up of anticipation as each storyline operates, for the most part, independently, towards a tragic end. Adams writing and Ruiz's direction of the action takes on a filmic quality as it cuts back and forth between the three plots. Adams toys with dualities in this play. Lover turns to murderer, good becomes evil, and death becomes life. Like a fish to a hook, Adams lures your affections for the unrequited lover, the mourning mother; and flips the circumstances around with stunning and terrible outcomes. And oddly enough, the only truly selfless act comes from the one with the horns. Bravo.

8 Little Anti-Christs

Set in a dystopian corporate future where Disney runs large state prisons, and Sony is mass-producing cloned workers, we find ourselves bumped two generations later and twenty years in our future. Jeremy and Melanie Gable are the latest inheritors of the Angel Eater curse and engaged in an epic misadventure to defeat the devil and destroy the eight anti-Christs that Jeremy is forced to resurrect...

...Adams' writing is bold and quite remarkable in its ability to disarm and within a turn of a phrase, horrify. She is not afraid to ponder and explore the darker outskirts of our communal human imagintion. The dreary crevices we only ever tentatively tip-toe towards, Adams rips open and thoroughly explores until fully satisfied.

All in all, I enthusiastically recommend the Angel Eater's Trilogy as a foray into a great work by Flux Theatre Ensemble and on the part of the playwright herself. Take advantage of the three-play discount as well as $14 tickets (a steal for New York theater).

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nytheatre.com's Micheal Mraz on the Trilogy

Thursday, November 13, 2008 0 comments

(Photo: Johnna Adams. Pictured: Satanachia)
A review of all 3 plays from actor Michael Mraz, writing for nytheatre.com:

nytheatre.com review

Michael Mraz · November 8, 2008

Johnna Adams started writing her Angel Eaters Trilogy and Flux Theatre Ensemble was so taken by the initial work that they decided to take on the entire three-part saga before she had even finished the last two and produce them in rep; quite an ambitious task for a young indie theatre company, but one that ends up paying dividends for Flux. Adams's Angel Eaters Trilogy, which follows three generations of a family with a rather unusual gift (or curse), provides for a strong, disturbing, affecting night of theater (or rather 3 nights, unless you're ambitious and would like to try your hand at all 3-on Saturdays only).

(Photo: Johnna Adams. Pictured: August Schulenburg, Zack Robidas, Rebecca McHugh)

Angel Eaters

Angel Eaters, the first play of the trilogy, introduces us to the Hollister family, trapped in the economic woes of 1930s Oklahoma. The man of the family, Herbert, is recently deceased (murder is suspected) and his wife, Myrtle, and daughters, Joann and Nola (who's pregnant out of wedlock), miss him desperately. So desperately that Myrtle has decided to hire two carnies, Fortune and Enoch, who claim to have the power to raise the dead.

(Photo: Justin Hoch. Pictured: Isaiah Tanenbaum, Gregory Waller.)

The carnies, of course, have no such power and skip from town to town, swindling grieving families out of their money. However, it seems that the younger daughter, Joann, an innocent but slightly slow-witted girl, does have such an ability. She claims to be able to speak to angels with bird calls and has stumbled upon the "gift" of being able to raise deceased animals on the farm from the dead.

(Photo: Justin Hoch. Pictured: Isaiah Tanenbaum, Cotton Wright, Marnie Schulenburg)

However, there is something a bit off about her talent. Every time she reanimates something, it comes back with a terrible bloodlust. Even odder, the angel that speaks to her (played by a superbly demonic, creepy Cotton Wright) talks about God's ego and laziness and tells stories of the beginning of time, when all humans had horns. Joanna is an Angel Eater, a shamanic curse that has run through her family's history. She finds she can raise the dead (by eating off their body) but at a price: when she revives something she eats its goodness; leaving only a crazed, bloodthirsty shell. As the innocent Joanna grows to realize her power is anything but holy, she comes to a point where she must make a decision: leave her father dead and watch her family slowly tear itself apart, or raise him, effectively killing the good in him.

(Photo: Justin Hoch. Pictured: Gregory Waller, Isaiah Tanenbaum)

The performances in Angel Eaters are superb across the board. Marnie Schulenburg's Joanna is so heartbreakingly pure that it kills you to think that she's been made the vessel of a demonic plot. Tiffany Clementi's Nola is Yin to Joanna's Yang, wildly rebellious and desperate to escape her mother's clutches. Isaiah Tanenbaum and Gregory Waller are suitably slimy as the two carnie hustlers and you can see them pass their plans to each other with just the wordless connection of their eyes. Catherine Michele Porter (as Myrtle) provides the crux of the show's message with her strong performance, conveying with every line her frantic need to keep her husband at her side—at any cost.

Just as superb, if not more so, than the writing and performances of Angel Eaters is the design work. Caleb Levengood's set is a ridiculously detailed labyrinth in the small Wings Theatre. Emily DeAngelis's costumes are picture perfect for 1930s Oklahoma. The show would not hold the same gravitas without the layered and at many times bone-chilling soundscape created by Asa Wembler. And Jennifer Rathbone's use of color and shadow defines the beautiful stage pictures of the show. Angel Eaters is extremely, consistently technically detailed (one has to give credit to dramaturg Kay Mitchell for some extensive, well-utilized research). With these aspects unified and complimented by the superb direction of Jessi D. Hill, they couldn't have done a better job, even with a Broadway budget.

(Photo: Justin Hoch. Pictured: Tiffany Clementi, Gregory Waller)

Angel Eaters questions every side of human intention, revealing the shadow behind every bit of brightness; the gloom in every ounce of hope. It begs the supreme question about loss and loneliness: what would you sacrifice to bring the person you loved back? And every character has a different answer. It is an experience that you leave feeling more than a bit uneasy in the deepest pit of your stomach, and I think that's how theatre should leave you: questioning some aspect of your world. Angel Eaters is a brilliant first chapter in a trilogy that does just that.

(Photo: Justin Hoch. Pictured: Isaiah Tanenbaum, Marnie Schulenburg, Tiffany Clementi, Catherine Porter)


(Photo: Justin Hoch. Pictured: Tumbleweed)

Rattlers, the second installment in Johnna Adams's Angel Eaters Trilogy, adopts a very different pace and style from the superb opening chapter of the play cycle, Angel Eaters. However, though more a character study, tightly weaving three different simultaneous stories, it still shares the dark heart and uneasy tone set by Part One. With Rattlers, Adams and Flux Theatre Ensemble delve into what six people are driven to do to deal with the death of one person that connects them all.

(Photo: Justin Hoch. Pictured: Matthew Crosby)

Set in 1975, Rattlers opens with a character we have met briefly before in Angel Eaters: one of the twin boys of Nola Hollister (the pregnant, rebellious daughter of the Hollister family), Osley. We quickly find out that the family's dreaded "gift," the ability to raise the dead while simultaneously killing all of the good in the soul of the once-deceased, has been passed on to the twins. Osley's brother Rooster embraced the gift, grew horns, and gave himself to the devil, while Osley has spent his life trying to embrace the path of God. But his ex-girlfriend, Ernelle, and her slimy, rattlesnake-charming man (aptly named "Snake") have other plans. Ernelle's beloved sister Kate has just been brutally murdered; she knows of Osley's talent and will stop at nothing to get him to bring her sister back.

(Photo: Justin Hoch. Pictured: Scott Drummond, Jason Paradine, Amy Lynn Stewart)

Focus then shifts to Kate's funeral, where we get a look at an intimate conversation between two men who loved Kate at different times in her life: a boy from her hometown, Ted, who's now the undertaker at the funeral home and has held an unrequited love for Kate since childhood, and her husband Everett. As their conversation about Kate unfolds, revealing deep, dark secrets about each, we find that not only were they the two who may have loved her most in the world but they are also the prime suspects in her murder.

(Photo: Justin Hoch. Pictured: Matthew Crosby, Richard Watson.)

Finally, we get a portrait of Kate's mother, hell-bent on using a young boy who harbors a desire for her to avenge her daughter's death. The script moves among each of the stories with a quickening pace until the play's disturbing climax. In the end, Rattlers focuses on love and both the tender moments and unspeakable evils each character is willing to perform for the thing they love most in the world. Once again, the trilogy submerges the audience in the fine lines between darkness and light; no one is quite innocent and yet you can't really hate them for what they do.

(Photo: Justin Hoch. Pictured: Jane Taylor, David Jackson)

The performances are once again stellar, most notably those of Jason Paradine and Richard B. Watson, as Osley and Everett, respectively. Paradine makes you feel every ounce of his conflict as he struggles with an impossible choice of staying on God's path or protecting his family by literally sacrificing his soul.

(Photo: Justin Hoch. Pictured: Jason Paradine, Scott Drummond, Amy Lynn Stewart)

Watson infuses every word and movement with a violent, tense menace, but balances this with moments of great tenderness toward Ted and his late wife, constantly keeping the watcher on his toes.

(Photo: Justin Hoch. Pictured: Richard Watson, Matthew Crosby)

However each performance benefits greatly from their scene partners. Amy Lynn Stewart walks a fine line between making Ernelle completely despicable, but absolutely sympathetic, while Matthew Crosby's sweetness and longing (as Ted) for the girl he could have only in death is heart-wrenching. Jerry Ruiz's tight direction pulls every moment of tension, love, and horror out other Adams's words (though, if there were only one small complaint, it would be that Caleb Levengood's superb, wraparound set is not utilized fully by the staging, but that's minor nitpicking).

The overall design of Rattlers continues the splendid consistency of Flux's production team. Jennifer Rathbone once again creates wonderful stage pictures with her use of light and shadow (and is skillfully utilized by the actors). Asa Wember's sound does the best job of connecting the pieces of the trilogy with the blending of sound effects used in Angel Eaters with newly created ones, reminding me a bit of a skillful composer building a musical soundscape throughout a good movie series. And hats off to Emily DeAngelis for making it look like Matthew Crosby's Ted was brought to the show via time-machine from 1975 (complete with a '70s mustache and shaggy hair).

Rattlers builds on the strong start of Adams's Angel Eaters, swimming in some of the same themes but daring to skillfully ask new questions about life, death, God, and love. It stands on its own as a very strong character study of seven people, and would be an enjoyable, disturbing, thought-provoking piece of theatre independent of the trilogy. However, seeing Rattlers as part of the whole brings an added level of suspense and impact to the piece; and an already affecting night of theatre is made that much more significant.

(Photo: Justin Hoch. Pictured: Becky Kelly)

8 Little Antichrists

8 Little Antichrists, the final installment of Johnna Adams's Angel Eaters Trilogy, jumps ahead 40 more years to 2028. Taking place in a futuristic Los Angeles (appropriately the City of Angels) in what feels a bit like a Blade Runner-esque setting, the play introduces us to a world in which women are hooked up to huge birthing beds and continually produce and sell sets of octuplets, McDonald's and Disney have become prisons of the future, and the Hollister bloodline is still surviving with its terrible power—and being closely pursued by Satan's agents to be used as instruments to fulfill the prophecy of his return.

(Photo: Johnna Adams. Pictured: Candice Holdorf)

This third and final piece to the puzzle takes yet another stylistic shift. 8 Little Antichrists veers away from the stark, darkly realistic feel of Angel Eaters and Rattlers and is told as a cartoonish, futuristic film noir detective story. Claudia, a triplet born in the mass-production birthing chambers, is a private eye who is investigating the mysterious death of her triplet sister. She stumbles onto a pair of siblings, Melanie and Jeremy, who are on the run from two demon angels, dispatched by Ezekiel, Satan's apparent manifestation on earth. Satan's minions have discovered that Melanie and Jeremy have the power to raise the dead and want to use that power to re-raise eight genetically-engineered babies who will become the spawn of Satan. If they succeed these "8 little antichrists" will open the door to Satan's reign over earth.

(Photo: Johnna Adams. Pictured: Felicia Hudson, Elise Link)

However, the major shift of genres, perhaps the major shift in time, and the grandeur of the plot details makes 8 Little Antichrists seem sorely out of place with respect to the dark, disturbing focus of the first two parts of the trilogy and leaves the viewer a bit disoriented. The script relies a lot more on goofy humor (i.e., the 8 little antichrists are represented by puppets and there is a large sequence of Claudia, the triplet, and her identical sisters rotating on and off the stage—all played by the same actress) and never really discovers its dark heart under the light jokes and comic relief. The strongest moments of the show are the times that it veers back to the evil that Angel Eaters and Rattlers delve into so effectively, but as a whole the show seems a bit alien to the trilogy it completes.

(Photo: Johnna Adams. Pictured: Zack Robidas)

If considered as a separate piece of theatre, there are some hilarious moments. Joe Mathers and Jake Alexander, two criminals imprisoned in the "Disneyland prison" who receive violent electric shocks any time their language exceeds a G-rating or insults Disney, are a hilarious and creepy comic duo.

(Photo: Johnna Adams. Pictured: Jake Alexander, Joe Mathers)

August Schulenburg as Ezekiel finds an amusing balance between insanity and a kind of pathetic evil, as the demon spawn hell-bent on testing his own immortality. His scene of cooing and calming the misbehaving 8 baby antichrists is hilarious. In the end, though, the overall hilarity of the piece ends up feeling jolting within the realm of the trilogy.

(Photo: Johnna Adams. Pictured: Satanachia, Mephistopheles)

The show is full of talented people and designers, but the script of 8 Little Antichrists struggles to find its place within the overall story and its ultimate message, which is the major strength of the trilogy thus far. Though some of the closing moments of the show go a long way toward tying it back to its predecessors, 8 Little Antichrists suffers from trying to be a grand conclusion to a trilogy that begins and thrives on great intimacy with its characters and audiences.

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