The Saints of Festus
nytheatre.com review by Kevin Connell
August 13, 2006
The ingredients: eight women, 40 quilts, 16 cases of Schlitz Malt Liquor beer. Season it with some humor and a bit of controversy and you've got the Church of the Bleeding Cross's 100th Annual Quilting Bee, where the women of Festus have a mission, to get drunk, praise Jesus, and raise cash for the Kickwater County Pro-Life fund. What a recipe! It does Betty Crocker proud! But, wait. Something's amiss. What is it? The ingredients all have the right potential. The sensibility is there for an hour of ridiculous theatre topped off with a little life lesson. Darn this recipe! It's so finicky. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't.
The primary ingredient missing in Scott Hess's The Saints of Festus is the solo artist himself—Scott Hess. Why he needs to tell this story. Why he cares about the people and issues examined. Why he thinks it's all funny and poignant. And what is exactly unresolved inside his head that drives him to include a bunch of crazy ladies, quilts, cases of beer, crystal meth labs, abortion clinics, Botox injections, baton twirlers, lesbian singers, religious fanatics, midgets, and most importantly, a little town in Missouri as the catalysts for his art-making?
Hess walks on stage wearing men's clothing—a pair of jeans and a Western shirt. Throughout the play he adorns himself with signature costume pieces to represent the female characters—a shawl, a wig, a pair of glasses, a pair of high heels. He sets up the premise from the beginning that a man is going to tell this story and that this man is going to become these women. But this never really happens. Hess forgets to be Scott; he does not adorn himself with each of his ladies of Festus.
To me, this piece is still in development, and it should be developed further—it screams of potential and success! But there are structural problems. For example, I didn't realize that the central debate of this play was the pro-life/pro-choice issue until about 30 minutes into the experience. In the end, I got what Hess was trying to say, but he needs to set up the story better. As an audience member, I need help figuring out how to structure all the exposition in my imagination. How to discern the trivial facts from the crucial ones.
As an actor, Hess is a powerhouse of energy and talent. He's brave, commanding, engaging, hilarious, honest, and versatile. Ultimately, his script needs to better support the true range of his acting abilities.
As the production's director, David Drake does a competent job with regard to staging and storytelling. I felt that more of his own writing "know how" could have better assisted Hess dramaturgically, though. And considering the depth and integrity behind his own work as a solo artist (The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me), the product of Hess's The Saints of Festus could be more polished, thought-out, and actualized.