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.
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. Osley'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. I don't have a lot to say about 8 Little Antichrists because I thought it was the weakest of the three plays.
Adams takes a strange and unexpected turn in the conclusion to her trilogy. Where I expected a horrifying yet deeply satisfying epic conclusion... I got an over-the-top, zany, side-show of poorly thought out lore-speak. Where the play fails greatest is perhaps in its desire to do too much. Jumping between the film noire detective story of Claudia into the mysterious death of her triplet sister, Sarah Jane, Jeremy's abduction by the now very material gun-wielding, sunglasses wearing, materix/secret agent caricature, fallen angels, and Melanie's attempt to acquire the body of god, found in a DelTaco happy meal from a pair of goofy Disney jail breakers... there's just a little too much story to go around. As Tim Gunn would say... "It's a lotta look."
I was disappointed in 8 Little Antichrists because I felt that it really came out of left field with its tone and delivery. We lose so much of Adams' strength in the messy convoluted plot twisting. I also believe that 8 Little Antichrists might have been better suited with a different medium, a film perhaps. Especially considering the awkward costume changes that Claudia must go through to play herself, her triplet sister, and a clone sister all in one scene.
Disappointments aside, 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.
It is clear Adams has more in her mind and on the cutting room floor as evidenced by the substantial back story which seems to be begging to be told, while at the same time, trips up the action of present storylines as they are burdened with excessive exposition. The requisite ritual of eating off of the dead, which at one point proved poignant poetics becomes a tired tool which the playwright and director must find increasingly inventive ways to facilitate.
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).