If you liked Carnivale and prefer plot to character, Johnna Adams's mystical Angel Eaters is the play for you: con men, weird girls, and angry mothers kicking up a storm in the Dust Bowl era. Stay for Marnie Schulenberg's performance as a touched young girl, and for Jessi D. Hill's atmospheric direction: creepy, yet satisfying.
Reviewed by Aaron Riccio
Angel Eaters takes place in Oklahoma, 1937, as we meet the cursed Hollister family. Myrtle (Catherine Michele Porter) is in mourning for her husband; her older daughter, Nola (Tiffany Clementi) is drinking turpentine to wash her baby out; and her youngest, Joann (Marnie Schulenburg), thinks that birds are angels, which is great for the local ornithologist, Doc O'Malley (Ken Glickfeld), who gets to play games like "bird in the bush" with her. There's a con artist named Fortune (Gregory Waller), too, and he's selling resurrections courtesy of his "nephew," Enoch (Isaiah Tanenbaum). None of these, as evinced by the lurking, black-eyed Azazyel (Cotton Wright) have to do with the curse: like on the HBO show Carnivale, the real problem is that Joann's latent power to resurrect things comes with a terrible price, a price which unfortunately explodes in a Tales from the Crypt ex machina sort of way.
In truth, Johnna Adams appears to be stretching through most of Angel Eaters, first evoking the depression-era atmosphere (nicely colored by lighting designer Jennifer Rathbone), and then slowly building up Joann's character, enough to make us feel sorry for her victimization. But she leaps into implausible scenes, making Fortune the father of Nola's kid, and turning Enoch into a one-dimensional sounding board: chained up to the Hollister porch as collateral on the resurrection, he's able to listen and watch in fear, but is never given any room to grow. In the climax, characters flip their motivations on a dime, with O'Malley giving Fortune a small fortune to clear out of town, but then showing up with a gun to make sure that he does--not to mention the fact that nobody seems to think they can outrun a 60-year-old with an ax.
And yet, Angel Eaters strings us along on its unconvention, led by Marnie Schulenburg's ability to play a clueless character in a sympathetic way, and by director Jessi D. Hill's use of space and timing, creating an odd mystical tension while at the same time rooting firmly into familar Southern territory. It's a mark of good direction (and swift pacing) that we spend so much time being entertained by relatively soulless characters.
Angel Eaters (1hr 30min, no intermission)
Wings Theater (154 Christopher Street)
Tickets: $18.00 ($40.00 for all three plays)
Performances (through 11/22): In repertory with Rattlers and 8 Little Antichrists, see website for details
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