If a show begins with character names that make you giggle…well, it’s a good start, even if the whole might not live up to the amusement of its parts.
Such was my snort (and giggle) at the names “Masha Doomski” and “Boris Anaphylactikov” in the lineup for playwright Matthew Posey’s St Ella at the always-intimate Ochre House Theater. Bring on the meta-theater, boys and girls, I sez to myself: I’m up for anything.
In simple, St Ella is a musical mash-up of people and parts of both The Seagull and A Streetcar Named Desire—the connective tissue being the general assholity of men (in general), and in specific the very annoying fictional gents up with whom these fictional women should not put.
Yet despite much sturm und drang (und singing und dancing) in the plot, the women, sad to say, seem to wind up just as oppressed and depressed at the end of the show—while the men dance away with their assholity intact.
Where’s the happy ending?
Nonetheless, Posey’s self-billed “dark comedy” was more than reasonably entertaining, and quite clever at moments, especially in the lyrics for a series of incidental songs created by Posey (lyrics) and composer Justin Locklear. Two musicians (Kate Fisher and Gregg Pickett) play live onstage; the music has a cabaret/vaudeville feel, but there’s a jazz lament (with muted horn), and one that’s a sort of Russian/C&W song-and-dance number. (Hey!)
But I have questions. Many questions. Why is Gaia (Carla Parker), the ultimate pro-woman Earth goddess, sitting on high shooting cryptic comments through a megaphone? “A banana for your thoughts?” she asks. Sure, why not?—especially as the play’s Ella (St Ella = “STELLA!”) must fend off her gorilla of a husband with a bunch of bananas right after. He is Theo (Brad Hennigan), the bullying “Stanley Kowalski” of the piece, and his put-upon Ella (Quinn Coffman) is the sister of Blanche Derriere (Monét Lerner), hollow-eyed party girl who’s lost the family plantation. Blanche catches the eye of Theo’s pal Miguel Bolas Grandes (Omar Padilla)—and that about wraps up the New Orleans gang.
But for the play’s purposes, their run-down “Elysian Fields” apartment in NOLA is also a poker-playing hangout for the men of the other play, Tripp Love (Cameron McCloud) and Boris Anaphylactikov (Chris Sykes) as The Seagull’s Konstantin and Trigorin. They pester and pine after Nina (Cassie Bann): Boris writes her poetry, Tripp brings her a seagull—no, a chicken. And they just won’t go away.
The ladies—Nina, Ella, Blanche—take turns singing poker-faced laments, each encircled by the destructive, pawing men in their lives. (Sad Masha, played by Shahada Crane, never gets her solo—though she throws herself into much dancing and brooding.) The acting is stylized but effective, and the singing surprisingly strong. As Boris, Sykes’ wild eyes do half the work, and McCloud is funny as the over-romantic Tripp. Burly Hennigan is just scary enough as Theo (we see how warily Ella moves around him), and Miguel and his “bolas” make a move on Blanche.
The play starts with a short film, and looking back, the themes are made clear in these first few minutes: the women are dead serious, tired of being “good and quiet”—and looking for a way to escape the men’s constant control over their lives, inside and out. “How far do men’s forceps go up?” Nina sings bluntly at a later moment. The men, from the start, are just running about on film, emotionally explosive and unpredictable—and skittish about anything that might upset their familiar world.
So is St Ella a comedy? At first, most definitely—and in the wild cabaret-ish songs & dances, ditto. Even the ladies’ lamentations have an edgy humor. It holds our interest (though the script might work better if pared down to a non-stop 90 minutes), but all the wordplay and music in the world can’t prevent us from noticing that even these strong, iconic women of classic theater can’t find ways to break away from their fictional fellas, bust out of the chains that hold them…and find their true selves.
Not funny, guys. Sheesh.
WHEN: Through September 24
WHERE: Ochre House, 825 Exposition Avenue, Dallas