“Ain’t a body yet that gave the undertaker a tip.” Flannery O’Connor has a deliciously twisted way with words. Why head to the box office and pay exorbitant amounts of money for a deceptively dark and twisted thrilling experience when you can slip on down to Station North in Charm City, slide into The Mercury Theatre and witness the inaugural production of a new company— Feral Woman— doing exactly the same thing without the highway robbery box office prices and the action just millimeters from your face? Kicking off their very first production, Feral Woman— an edgy new company debuting on the Baltimore Theatre Scene— presents, newly adapted to the stage by Director Madison Coan, company partners Rjyan Kidwell and Connor Kizer, Flannery O’Connor’s short story A Good Man is Hard to Find. Distorted, warped, and utterly ensnaring; Coan has taken this story and animated it, quite literally, drawing it to gnarled life right before the audiences’ eyes.
Playing in The Mercury is no easy task, companies have been puzzling their brains around the store-front space for years. But Feral Woman has a handle on how to best set their curiously spine-tingling tale right at the back of long, narrow space. With minimal scenery, though exceptionally well crafted and designed by William H. Chapman, maneuvering through scenes makes this 50-minute play clip along even quicker than expected. Chapman’s backdrop and central piece of focus— the family car— possess a disrupted quality to them; they are animation gone slightly off their happy, shiny, intended path. This, along with the gruesome property masks featured on the family baby and grandma’s cat and the over-exaggerated age lines painted onto the older character’s faces, serve the vein of psychological unease quite well throughout the show. These elements, in particularly the hyper intense age lines featured in the make-up plots, augment a level of surreal caricature to the show, creating this unsettling sense of external reality working through the suspense that is subtly building beneath the plot.
Director Madison Coan serves as the show’s costumer and prop designer, paying close attention to detail in both departments to readily ground the performers in the 1950’s Tennessee landscape. The ridiculous tropical shirt that Bailey, head of the family, wears, along with the big gold hoop earrings and lime bandana rag on mother’s head are just a few of these finely honed nuances that help paint a true family picture. Working alongside Coan are Trevor Wilhelms as the show’s Lighting Designer and Allison Clendaniel & Rjyan Kidwell as the show’s Sound Designer. The authenticity of the soundscape that Clendaniel and Kidwell underscore throughout the production— like the slow-but-speeding cars zipping by on the highway or the intense crash sounds towards the show’s end— are quite striking. It’s the single and gut-punching gunshots that really disturb the audience.
Buying into the ever so slightly surreal elements that are occurring within the production, despite it’s gruesome and disturbing nature, the show is completely solid. This band of actors— seven in all with two doubling up multiple times throughout the performance— is on their game as far as being invested in this warped characters and their even more twisted story. Dave Iden and Mariam Keramati take on the roles of John Wesley and June Star— the family children— respectively. It almost becomes a running competition for who can be more of a petulant child, with Iden bursting out into his argumentative fits and Keramati whining and simpering the entire time. The pair channel the nuances of young bored and antsy children largely through their body language and facial expressions when trapped in the back of the car with their cantankerous and fusty old grandmother for the duration of the roadtrip.
It should be readily noted that everyone who affects an accent during the performance, and that’s essentially everyone except The Misfit (Rjyan Kidwell), does so exceptionally well and with great consistency. The most notable example of this is Allison Clendaniel in the role of the Reverend Bevel Summers, down at the river of Jesus’ blood with her healing and suffering speech. When she says the word “water” it gets a hard “wh-” sound at the beginning of its verbal life and you get that backwoods chill shivering its way up your spine. Clendaniel doubles up opposite Tim Paggi throughout the production and in the big river scene, Paggi plays a creepy character known as Mr. Paradise, whose grotesque goiter growth on his neck just about steals the scene.
Madison Coan also inserts herself into the production, taking up the mostly silent role of Mother. She is constantly rocking this heinously vile looking creature, meant to be a baby, and although we never hear the infant cry or scream, it is very apparently implied that this is one fussy baby if her physical gestures are any indication. Coan becomes one of the more interesting character to watch, deeply invested in the physical mime work of attending to this baby, bouncing it, shushing it, trying to keep it calm, and her facial expressions reflect the same. Coan also takes charge of what few words she has; when she shouts her simple orders, her wayward children fall immediately in line.
Bailey (Connor Kizer) don’t do much talking neither. How could he with the Grandmother (Molly Margulies) constantly flapping her gums about like a windsock in a full force gale? But what Kizer’s character lacks in text he more than makes up for in facial expressions. Watching his eyes shift from road hypnosis to “please don’t make me murder my family on this road trip” is absolutely hysterical, especially as the progression starts gradual but grows rapidly as everyone in the car brings their roaring chaotic din to a head. There is one moment wherein Kizer gets to fully blast out his vocality and it is indeed quite frightening.
Margulies, as the ceaselessly chatty and nosy as the day is long busybody Grandmother, is an absolute hoot. There is something about the way Margulies carries the character that defies description while simultaneously making you love and hate her. It’s conflicting. Margulies makes the character so irritating that you’re praying something awful happens to her; maybe Bailey will pull the car over and leave her on the side of the road! Using her vivid facial expressions, enhanced by the severely exaggerated age lines, Margulies is living lively in every moment, even the ridiculous ones, when it comes to this character.
Again, fair warning, this is a rather disturbing piece, and deceptively so, but well worth investing the $10 and the 50 minutes to see what this brand new theatre company is bringing to Charm City.
Running Time: Approximately 50 minute with no intermission
A Good Man is Hard to Find plays through August 20, 2017 with Feral Woman at The Mercury Theatre— 1823 N. Charles Street in the Station North Arts District of Baltimore, MD. Tickets can be purchased at the door or in advance online.