Review: ‘Mary’s Little Monster’ at Ophelia Theatre. Brand New, Already Tired.

Thomas Burns Scully

Frankenstein’s monster is arguably the most iconic horror figure of all time. A timeless and timely expression of humanity’s need for self-perpetuation, coupled with the bastardization of the powers of creation through the employment of science. Although I personally take issue with the story’s depiction of scientists and the scientific method (which grows less timely, and more worryingly anti-intellectual as the years march on) I’m quite a fan, particularly of Boris Karloff’s interpretation of the role (His picture hangs on my bedroom wall). Working at the ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ pub and club I recreated the re-animation experiment hundreds of times, and the thrill of yelling “It’s alive!” never wore off. So what of the woman who created the source material? Mary Shelley has yet to have a notable modern actress star in a biopic of her life, so most of us (myself included) don’t know a lot about her. To fulfill that need, I assume, Ophelia Theatre created ‘Mary’s Little Monster’, a play that tells the story of a troubled woman and her troubled life, and the circumstances surrounding her creation of an icon.

It follows Mary Shelley (Then Mary Godwin) and her husband-to-be, noted poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, as they spend a holiday in mainland Europe in the company of Lord Byron, her stepsister Claire Clairmont and Dr. John William Polidori. As incessant Swiss rain pelts the villa where they reside, they get caught up in one another, intellectually, sexually and emotionally. Byron throws down the gauntlet for a challenge. They must each write a tale of phantasmagoria in an attempt to stir up the others. As some of them take up the challenge, the group of them get more and more mixed up in one another. They become a turgid swamp of wretched goings on… and out of this is born Shelley’s meisterwerk: ‘Frankenstein’.

I found the affair to be rather a let-down. Performances ranged from serviceable to well above-average, but the writing was unfortunately messy and unfocused. I’m assuming a great deal of research was put in to this script, the reading of diaries and so-forth. As I said, I’m not hugely familiar with the lives of those involved, so I cannot say for certain what is fact and what comes from the realm of imagination. However, the show felt at once overly-fanciful and staggeringly constrained by historical fact. In much the manner of shows like ‘The Tudors’ and ‘Spartacus’, there was a consistent presence throughout of carnal knowledge or the sexual tension aroused by lack of same. I’m not against this on principle, ‘Je Suis Pamela’ and so on, but at a certain point it feels like the writer (Thomas Kee) is either pandering far too hard to what he perceives as a modern audience’s sensibilities, or working far too publicly on his soft-core Lord Byron slash-fic. This, when played opposite Kee's constant poorly-explained allusions to backstory makes the play feel like a confusing romance novel. There were often times when a character would mention something that had happened in London months previously, as if the audience had a copy of the 1816 Almanac on hand at all times. I, like most people, consider myself above-averagely read, but I have to admit, my Georgian era TMZ knowledge is a little rusty, and I could have used a few more lampshades and exposition-dumps.

More importantly, the script could never find a point of focus. Was it about Mary’s search for self-validation? The feeling of being an outcast? Lord Byron’s omnipresent libido and accompanying penis? The writing competition? Claire’s promiscuity? With so many stories interwoven, Kee’s writing never seemed to settle on what the main thrust of the story was. Nothing felt like it had an appropriate emotional weight or time commitment for its position of importance in the script. Because of that, the story dragged, and, at two hours in runtime felt like two and a half.

Performance wise, the show was decent. Logan T. Sutton’s Percy Shelley was suitably dour and  moody. Megan Gaber’s Claire Clairmont was naughty but nice. Michael Tubman’s John Pollidori was a little dull, but pleasantly repressed. Kaitlyn Schirard as Mary was… tolerable, with occasional shining moments, but none of the rare note and fire I wanted from her. The only out and out superstar was Andy Dispensa as Lord Byron. Throughout, he seemed like he was having a ball with everything he was doing, strutting about as if he truly believed he was God’s gift to women, men, the universe and existence in general. He was arrogant, precocious and braggadocios to the point that when his vulnerability and insecurity did shine through, it felt like the most natural, and yet unexpected thing in the world.

And so, despite a few highlights (and Director Samuel Adams’ superbly decorated set), the production was largely unremarkable. It served as a good point of reference for tangential learning, but due to a lack of a physical program citing bibliographical material, there is no factual context for the history referenced in the play. As such, I don’t know how much weight to give any of the history I learned by watching the play. I’d be interested in reading more in an academic context, but the events in the show could be paraphrased from ‘Star Trek: Voyager’ for all I know. It was messy, with occasional moments of clarity, a decent cast, one stand-out performance, but not a lot else. It felt like a rough, overlong first draft. I’d be interested in working on this play with a dramaturge and workshop it, but as it stands, it’s just a difficult thing to get through. Until next time, Ophelia Theatre.

‘Mary’s Little Monster’ has five performances remaining, on the 30th, 31st, 1st, 6th and 8th, all at 8pm. Tickets $18. It will be staged at Ophelia Theatre’s space in Astoria. Details and ticketing links at opheliatheatre.com.

This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded in Time Out NY and the New York Times, and his writing has been performed on three continents. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man. 

Follow him on Facebook (as Thomas Burns Scully), and on Twitter (@ThomasDBS)

Review : Trapped in a Room With “Floyd Collins” at the Ophelia Theatre

Thomas Burns Scully

A few months ago I had the pleasure of riding the NQ up to Astoria and meeting the Ophelia Theatre Group for the first time. The play I saw, ‘The Fox and Boulder’ was lovely; a fantastic off-off Broadway piece that would have easily felt at home in a bigger space. I said as much in the review I at the time. I remember thinking, I hope they invite me back for the next one, these guys know what they’re doing. Well, time has come around and the next one has arrived, a revival of the 1996 Obie-Winning Musical ‘Floyd Collins’. And I have to say… it’s a bit of a let down.

It’s a difficult thing to say, because of how much I enjoyed and admired the former Californian theatre company’s last production, but unfortunately, yes, I didn’t really care for their ‘Floyd Collins’. The musical story of a man trapped underground and becoming the world’s first media sensation didn’t move me, particularly. That’s not to say it’s completely without merit, or that it’s completely unsalvageable, but there are serious technical problems with the work that need to be addressed. I can also confess to a certain personal bias against the material. I’ll get in to that in a moment, but first…

The biggest problem with the production, as I saw it on Friday, was the sound balance. A combination of the way the space is set up, mixed with their selective use of amplification meant that for about half of the musical numbers you couldn’t hear the singers clearly. Ophelia Theatre’s performance space is a converted function room in a rec-centre. They have done a great job making it in to at theatre, but the room wasn’t built with acoustics in mind. This wasn’t a problem when they were doing a straight play, but it’s limitations are all too apparent with a musical. The space did no favors to singers when they were performing, damping the sound of those with stronger voices and muting those with weaker voices. When singing alongside the full and amplified band there was a consistent loss of vocal clarity that made the lyrics range from indistinct to inaudible. As musical theatre sins go, this is among the deadly several. They either need their singers louder or their band quieter, because the sound situation as it stands kills the progression of the story in half the songs.

It’s a real shame, because there’s some great stuff being done here. The intimate two-handed scenes between Floyd (played by Landon Sutton) and his would be rescuers Homer (Logan Sutton) and Skeets Miller (Raymond Delaney) have real heart to them. When the show strips itself down to what is essentially a black-box scene-study the actors relax and really trust each other, and it makes for great drama. Mollie Craven as Nellie Collins has excellent musical theatre chops. I couldn’t hear the words over the band, but the notes she hit were sensational, as was the way she carried herself. Director Eric Ruiter has set the performance space up in a pleasantly dynamic fashion. The main performance area is a raised stage with a thrust out on bare floor, leading to a second smaller raised stage, creating a large, functional traverse space. Very exciting. And for all my complaints about the sound, one of my biggest compliments to the production is their use of live foley effects. Actors work using microphones around the room to create the sounds of dripping water, tumbling boulders and camera flash-bulbs. It manifests the world of Cave City, Kentucky beautifully. In a show that wasn’t plagued with the issues that ‘Collins’ is, it would have been a wonderful cherry on top. Unfortunately, this is not that show. Much as I would like it to be.

And now further complaints. Logan Sutton was stellar in ‘Fox and Boulder’, and he shines in moments of brilliance here, but he is also responsible for some of the show’s biggest musical missteps. In his first big solo song he sang some notes that were painfully off key. And very obviously so. There’s no other way of saying that. There were also some issues in the band, I couldn’t tell you for certain who was responsible without being in the middle of them, but there were several moments when either the piano player or the drummer went quite badly off time forcing everyone else to recover. I can forgive a lot of technical problems on a first night, but slips like this are frankly embarrassing. They are remediable, but they are the faire of a dress rehearsal and not a first night.

Apart from Ophelia’s work, I also have issues with the musical as a piece of text. I’m not convinced it’s a great piece of writing. The real life story of Collins is certainly interesting: the tale of the world’s first media circus, human interest, spirit of endurance, etc. but the framing of it within the writing here is scattered and unfocused. The musical can’t seem to make it’s mind up whether it’s an intimate portrait of a man who’s dream broke his body but not his spirit, or an allegory for the media’s distortion of events, or an intense psychological rescue thriller (a la ‘Buried’ or ‘127 Hours’), or any number of other things. Floyd Collins would appear to be the main character, but there are large sections of the show where he does nothing, and his character arc is largely nonexistent. From start to finish, he’s about the same, and while he is the axis on which the plot spins, he feels like more of a cypher for the concerns of the other characters. That would suggest that either Homer or Skeets (his main conversants) are the main character, but while they take turns being the eye of the audience, neither gives us any emotional satisfaction in the end. And the character who we finish with and who gets the last word is Floyd Collins, who, as we have already said, doesn’t change all that much. This lack of focus makes the show seem very long. And it is. Between Adam Guettel’s overabundance of songs for secondary characters and Tina Landau’s endless stream of poorly/never resolved subplots for same, the running time comes to just under three hours, with intermission, and it feels it. I loved the scenes between Floyd and others underground. Top notch acting work and good writing. I kept wanting more of that. That would be my ideal “Floyd Collins”, a one-room ‘No Exit’-style drama. One character stuck in a cave, only two people to talk to. You could do the whole thing in ninety minutes. As it stands, the show currently feels bloated and fuzzy. Not an ideal choice for black-box theatre.

So there we have it. I do still wish the best for Ophelia Theatre, but they have a lot to fix here, on a show which doesn’t deserve them. They really are lovely people. When it became apparent how warm the theatre was becoming before the show, they went out of the way to provide copious amounts of water and cool face-towels to every table, as well as doubling up the number of fans in the room. They care, and they obviously work hard, but that doesn’t take away the fact that I was really bored a lot of the time during ‘Floyd Collins’. I wish them better luck on the next one.

Info: http://opheliatheatre.com/?p=1325

General Admission: $18
Sunday Evenings: Pay What You Can

Ticket Link: http://floydcollins2015.bpt.me

Review ~ “The Fox and Boulder” Handmade and Well-loved

Thomas Burns Scully / Critic There’s nothing quite like being taken by surprise by a piece of theatre; entering a performance space with no preconceptions and emerging two-and-some hours later having had your life changed a little. It’s the reason we go to shows. When I rode the N-Train up to Astoria yesterday, I didn’t know what to expect from the show I was going to see. I was heading to something called “The Fox and Boulder” by a group called the Ophelia Theatre Group. I didn’t know what either of these things were. Ophelia Theatre turned out to be a theatre company from California that have spurned the Gold Rush and gone east, housing themselves in a converted black-box space in a rec-centre in Astoria. “The Fox and Boulder” turned out to be a rather wonderful play by Sarah Bennett being performed by said Californians. If you have a busy day ahead of you, I’ll save you a bit of time and sum it up in four words: Go and see it. This one is definitely worth it. If you don’t have a busy day ahead of you, well then… read on.

“The Fox and Boulder” is a comedy, though calling it a comedy seems misleading. Not because it’s not funny, it’s very funny, but the soul of the play has a melancholy to it that the term comedy doesn’t always suggest. In practice it’s something akin to the mood of a Wes Anderson film. It is set in a fantasy medieval realm, in a local village pub which gives its name with the title of the play. We meet the pub’s owner, Hepley, his barmaid Gretchen and their regulars in steady succession. These include the hapless Strock, a borderline village idiot who has visions of becoming king; Forsythe, the local abbott who is in love with Gretchen; Brenna, a charming peasant-girl; and Lilac, a wily and aspirational trader. The group are joined by Simon, a traveller who has come to town looking for his lost love, and a group of knights from the neighboring kingdom. The knights warn of impending war. In a show of hospitality over aggression, the locals offer to throw them a party. As the party gets going, a group of gypsies roll in and stir things up even further. The stage is set for an evening of discovery, alcohol fueled lust, and conversations of the heart.

“Fox and Boulder” is very well written, Bennett has a good hand for dialogue and draws interesting, funny, lovable characters. Her story unfolds at a comfortable walking pace with occasional infusions of raw energy (most notably with the arrival of the gypsies); it never rushes forward, but the audience is never bored either. Her plot twists come from all realms of storytelling: modern meet-cutes, classic fairy tales and bawdy Greek comedy; creating a narrative that has a little something for everyone. The Wes Anderson comparison seems to hold fair, as the whole show has the feel of a sentimental indie-comedy. Add to that notes of the Spewacks’ “My Three Angels” and Philip Barry’s “Hotel Universe”, and you have a pretty good idea of what “Fox and Boulder” is like: Charming, heartfelt, slightly whimsical, but nicely grounded at the same time. Kudos to the writer.

Bennett co-directs with Eric Ruiter. The pair do a nice job of wrangling their sizable cast (fifteen actors in all), who all hand in marvelous performances. They are too numerous to mention all in turn, but the ensemble cast give the play a vivacious life. Examples of same include (and are not limited to) Jon Schaller as Hepley. He is endearingly put-upon, with a semi-permanent hang-dog expression that suits his character wonderfully. Brittney Moss as Brenna brings to mind the ultimate girl next door as she plays with Ian Petersen’s Simon. Taryne Kellogg plays the slightly unscrupulous Lilac to a highly enjoyable T. And Logan Sutton as the gypsy leader Bolajz is disarmingly sexy and compelling; a volatile compound of Eddie Izzard, Johnny Depp and Mick Jagger. As I said earlier, however, the whole cast is on form.

“Fox and Boulder” impresses on the technical side too. Ophelia Theatre have converted the theatre space they perform in themselves, and it seems more serviceable (and spacious) than many of the more popular Manhattan black boxes. Their years of experience shine through in their stagecraft too. The set is simply realized, but undeniably evocative, the lighting design compliments it perfectly, as does the sound design, and the costumes range from the wonderfully burlesque to the pleasantly quaint. All elements come together to create an imaginary period in history, much in the manner of “Princess Bride” or similar. Much approval to Shelby Lee Leora, Eric Marchetta, Rebecca Joy Wallace and Dave Green for the lighting, scenery, costume and sound, respectively. They bring all the components of the show together into a palpable atmosphere, which stays with you for hours after you leave the show.

Indeed, atmosphere is probably the key word here. The play is called “The Fox and Boulder”, and it really is the imaginary pub that’s the star of the show. If you picture your best nights at your favorite slightly-run-down bar with your favorite slightly-run-down people, that’s what going to see this show is like. An evening with good friends you’ve never met before. It feels handmade and well-loved. It’s not perfect, but the occasional cracks in the firmament are entirely forgivable when weighed against all the good fun and good will that this show brings. It took me by surprise, and I highly recommend you take a trip on the NQ to Astoria and get surprised yourself.

Ticket Info

General Admission: $18

Sunday Evenings: Pay What You Can!

http://thefoxandboulder.bpt.me/

http://www.opheliatheatre.com/

Runs on Weekends until the 28th of March