Angel Eaters Among Us

In an era when most theater companies choose to produce works by new writers that are one act – no, wait, ten minutes – wait – in length, substantial props go to Flux Theatre Ensemble for producing all three of Johnna Adams’ full-length plays in her new Angel Eaters Trilogy, not only in the same season, but at the same time. Adams, in turn, deserves credit for daring to compose on such a massive scope - the three plays are diversely inspired by the Oresteia, Christopher Smart’s “Jubilate Agno,” the Christian mythic system, and bird-watching lore. The risks that company and playwright have taken, for the most part, pay off. The Angel Eater curse originates with a family of Native American shamans who ritually eat off the dead bodies of humans and animals in order to reanimate them. When a daughter of the family is captured in conjunction with the Trail of Tears, converts to Christianity and marries an Oklahoma farmer, the curse lies dormant for a generation, only to reawaken in Joann (Marnie Schulenburg), a mentally slow girl growing up during the Dust Bowl years of the Great Depression. Angel Eaters, the first of the three plays, tells her story.

Joann’s life is stark - her father has died, her unwed sister Nola (Tiffany Clementi) is pregnant, and her mother (Catherine Michele Porter) allows the local doctor (Ken Glickfeld) to molest her in exchange for the pittance that keeps the family alive. When a dark angel (Cotton Wright) speaks to Joann, claiming that a God who fails to correct the evil in the world is irresponsible and must be overthrown, Joann struggles to understand whether her growing power is good or evil, and whether she should challenge God’s authority by bringing her father back.

As Joann, Schulenburg is mesmerizing, and all of the acting in this installment is excellent. Director Jessi D. Hill takes full advantage of the staging opportunities afforded by the space and spearheads a unified, compelling production. The atmosphere is moody and strikes just the right balance between realism, fantasy and horror. The issues it probes, such as love, grief, fate, desperation, sibling rivalry, and the battle between good and evil, are deep and universal. All of the human characters in Angel Eaters, except Joann, are flawed, yet sympathetic, and watching Joann succumb to her fate is heartbreaking.

Rattlers skips ahead to the 1970s and chronicles an eventful day in the life of Osley (Jason Paradine), Joann’s now-grown nephew. His former girlfriend Ernelle’s (Amy Lynn Stewart) sister Kate has been brutally murdered, and Ernelle is determined to force an unwilling Osley to resurrect her at any cost. Kate’s mother Mattie (Jane Lincoln Taylor) directs her vengeful efforts in different direction while two men (Matthew Crosby and Richard B. Watson) who loved Kate at different periods of her life reveal themselves as suspects in her murder.

If anything, Rattlers is an even stronger piecer than its prequel. With the mood and the curse’s history already established, Rattlers is free to open in the midst of high action. The potency of loss and the destructive potential of love are explored in triplicate and unwind towards a climax as dramatic as that of <Angel Eaters. Once again, the cast is strong, with Paradine and Watson offering particularly brilliant performances and director Jerry Ruiz sculpting a nuanced and cohesive drama.

8 Little Antichrists shifts to a smouldering Los Angeles 2028. Osley’s grandchildren Melanie (Rebecca McHugh) and Jeremy (Zack Robidas), assisted by a sextet of cloned second cousins, battle demons and their dystopian environment to avert apocalypse and save the world from an octet of newborn antichrists.

In this final episode, the fantastical elements of the Eater curse and the Christian theology previously introduced mix with a variety of science fiction tropes – genetic engineering gone wrong, Big Brother technology eroding privacy, malevolent corporations obstructing justice - as well as film noir, detective stories, Californian culture references, and a cariacatured Disneyland. Combined with numerous new characters and a continuously twisting plot, it is a bit too much to yield a coherent presentation. Four characters – the two female angels and the two Disney prisoners – serve no useful function and are frequently irritating – it is a huge relief when they disappear from the scene. At times the script bogs down in exposition; at other times it glosses over information that is critical to following the complex plot and understanding the workings of unfamiliar technology.

While the script poses undeniable challenges, Kelly O’Donnell’s direction does little to overcome them or to take advantage of the text’s equally undeniable strengths, such as its humor, whimsy and at least a few strong, relatable characters. The pacing is wildly inappropriate – it would have helped greatly to slow down or physically highlight important moments of plot development and to speed through or shift attention away from the nonessential ensemble segments. The wide stage and multiple playing areas the theater offers are not as well utilized here as in the two previous plays, and the blocking is often clumsy. The acting style is incoherent and many moments that could have been either sincere or humourous are rendered cheesy and gag-worthy.

That said, by the time viewers have experienced the first two productions, they will want to find out what happens next and be willing to put up with some nonsense to find out. Candice Holdorf does an admirable job playing not just one but six different clone roles, and August Schulenburg plays Ezekiel with energy and expressiveness. The play’s greatest failing is that it explodes in too many different directions, but a play that goes out this way is still much more interesting to watch than one that never offers any interest in the first place.

Perhaps the most successful aspect of the tri-production is the coherent world that Adams and her collaborators create. Even the characters who never appear onstage are convincingly real, and it is difficult not to care about their fate and the ultimate outcome of this family’s struggles. One of the great pleasures of the fantasy and science fiction genres is the “rules” that these stories develop to govern their otherworldy elements, and the satisfaction of guessing how the protagonists will ultimately manipulate their powers to save the day. It is fascinating to watch the Angel Eaters fall into and climb out of the same traps generation after generation, and ultimately resolve their curse. This particular satisfaction is only possible with a longer, muli-chapterered dramatic structure like the Trilogy’s.

All three plays benefit from surprisingly sophisticated design elements. Lighting designer Jennifer Rathbone ensures that the action is always well-lit and the supernatural elements are strikingly highlighted. Asa Wember’s sound design, consisting of Southern hymns and folk music layered with spooky special effects, is nuanced and enhances the plays’ creepy, fatalistic mood, although some of the choices in the final play, such as the cue associated with the body of God, are distractingly inappropropriate. The main structure of Caleb Levengood’s set remains the same throughout the trilogy, and the broken-down wooden walls and boards are very convincing as farm and ranch buildings in Oklahoma, if less suited for a futuristic LA. Smaller elements such as furniture and props change from play to play, and 8 Little Antichrists makes good use of several television monitors that help to make the transition to the future. The costumes, designed by Emily DeAngelis, are uniformly excellent – the dresses the two sisters wear in Angel Eaters are particularly remarkable in their period suitability and the way that they move with and emphasize the actresses’ gestures and actions. The challenge of numerous actors sprouting horns onstage is admirably met.

Adams and Flux Theatre have created a compelling series with an ambitious vision that will hopefully serve as a model for other brave artists and production companies. Get yourself to the theater for the first two episodes and, if you find yourself hooked, stick around for the third.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post