Queen Victoria (Madalyn McKay), Andromeda (Marnie Schulenburg), Heloise (Aly Wirth), and Anaïs Nin (Shelly Feldman) await the possible arrival of a man in David Stalling’s “Anaïs Nin Goes to Hell.”
The darker side of the Fringe
By Adrienne Urbanski
Typically, the fare at New York’s annual International Fringe Festival looks toward the lighter side of life. This year’s offeringsfrom the musical tribute to the life of Britney Spears and a monologue lamenting the frequent use of the word “vajayjay”certainly were no exception. But as the curtain closes on the festival, consider its darker side, which includes a visit from a serial killer and trip to the depths of hell.
Bill Connington’s adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ novella “Zombie” delivers a powerful force of terror. Serving as both writer and actor, Connington fully embodies the fictional Michigan serial killer Quentin P., donning heavy aviator glasses and a thick, stilted Midwestern accent. Surprisingly, the piece is directed by Thomas Caruso, resident director of Broadway’s “Mamma Mia!”
The dark coziness of the Player’s Loft provides an ideal space for the play, set in the depths of the basement of Quentin’s dead grandmother’s home. The only props are a card table, dummy, checkerboard, and overhanging lamp, but nothing more is needed given how quickly Connington’s energy fills the room.
A monologue is a natural extension of Oates’ work, as she penned the work envisioning the killer explaining himself to an audience. Alone and surrounded by darkness, Quentin tells of how his unfulfilled desire for friendship and sex lead him to hunt down attractive young men, attempting botched lobotomies on each. He hoped to turn them into zombies; sexual slaves to fulfill his every whim.
Perhaps in a larger space, the play would be less terrifying, as there would be enough distance to remind ourselves this is fiction. Instead, watching in rows close to the stage, it becomes frightening to be in such close proximity to a man who truly seems to be a soulless killer, lacking the smallest shred of regret. “Zombie” proves to be an endlessly terrifying work, one sure to scare the pants off even the most jaded New Yorker.
Another dark, albeit more humorous work, is “Anaïs Nin Goes to Hell,” which asks what would happen if Anaïs Nin, Queen Victoria, Joan of Arc, Cleopatra, Andromeda, and Heloise were all on an island together in the afterlife? The answer, evidently, is that everyone can learn something from the genius of Ms. Nin.
The play opens with each woman, other than Nin, peering out into a literal ocean of the afterlife, convinced they can see the men they loved during their lives coming to get them. (Joan, of course, is waiting for God to show up, confused that she isn’t in heaven.)
Anaïs Nin arrives after telling a ferryman that she wants to be as far away from men as possible. (Hell turns out to be much like the Greeks imagined it, replete with a hydra monster that gobbles up Sylvia Plath shortly before Nin’s arrival.)
Immediately upon arrival Nin tries to solve the problems of her fellow islanders, beginning by slipping Joan lithium until her messages from God go away. She lectures the rest of the women on the absurdity of spending their afterlives waiting for men to come around, telling them their men would come if they had wanted to.
Every actress is spot on in her portrayal of history’s (and mythology’s) famous women. Shelly Feldman fully brings Nin to life, while Colleen Piquette is hilarious as an annoying Joan of Arc.
The show’s playwright, David Stallings, describes the work as “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventures” meets “The L Word,” though his play is a more literary version of both, right down to the historical jokes and the constant Sapphic chemistry. The show itself, however, feels like a prolonged sketch, and would have been more amusing at half the length. The play’s conclusion is one the woman should have been fortunate enough to discover during their mortal lives: that they are complete on their own and that waiting around for men is a waste of time. Still, “Anaïs Nin Goes to Hell” is noteworthy for its depiction of historical figures and their laugh-inducing gags.
Playing at 220 E. Fourth St., “Anais Nin Goes to Hell” was written by David Stallings and directed by Cristina Alicea. Based on a novella by Joyce Carol Oates, “Zombie” was written by Bill Connington, and directed by Thomas Caruso. The work shows through Saturday at The Players Loft, 115 MacDougal St., 3rd Floor. Both shows through Saturday, Aug. 24. Tickets available at fringenyc.org