The Angel Eaters Trilogy
nytheatre.com review by 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).
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.