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 The Angel Eaters Trilogy continues thru November 22 at The Wings Theatre, 154 Christopher Street

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