As a writer for this website, I’ve had the privilege of seeing shows at The Kennedy Center and The National Theatre, Arena Stage and Ford’s, Sidney Harmon Hall… a big budget, an elegant space, and an army of artists and staff can create formidable theatre. But for my money, the most important and satisfying responses that live theatre can produce – intellectual stimulation, a visceral emotional response, catharsis – has nothing to do with the grandeur of the auditorium or the size of the budget. You can see living proof of this now at Venus Theatre Company, whose breathtaking new play, God Don’ Like Ugly, is as close to true art as the modern theatre can ever aspire to. Director Deborah Randall has captured lighting in a bottle; the bottle just happens to be in Laurel, Maryland.
A world premiere by American ex-pat Doc Andersen-Bloomfield, God Don’ Like Ugly is part social commentary, part modern myth, with a healthy dollop of latter day Tennessee Williams. Sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, but always luminous with inspirational intensity, God Don’ Like Ugly is a heart palpitating, pupil dilating, and, yes, cathartic experience.
Begin with Esme (Cathryn Benson), a thirty six year-old woman who has the mental age of a seven year-old. She lives with her beleaguered mother, Bessie (Nancy Blum) in a crumbling farmhouse in rural Texas. Esme has a twin sister, Ella Margaret (also played by Cathryn Benson), who we gather is missing, and that Bessie expects her back some day, but it is unclear where she is gone or when she left. Their insular co-existence is changed forever when Sarah Jane, or SJ (Ann Fraistat) comes wandering on to their compound on the run from an abusive boyfriend.
Cathryn Benson is nothing short of extraordinary as the mentally challenged Esme. On the one hand, she scrupulously avoids any kind of characterization that could be construed as demeaning or distasteful. On the other hand, she fully embodies every aspect of Esme, including her love of Golden Oldies, her trained fear of “stranger danger,” and, yes, her mental disabilities. She avoids the insidious trap of normalizing her character out of fear of offending someone. To not commit fully to her character’s voice and physicality would be even more condescending than if she were a caricature. I felt deeply uncomfortable watching Ms. Benson live the life of her character on stage, and I’m enormously grateful for that discomfort. It means that something is seriously working on the Venus stage.
Ms. Benson may walk away with the metaphorical Oscar for this one, but that shouldn’t diminish the performances of her colleagues. Nancy Blum plays Bessie, Esme’s bitter and reluctant caretaker. A dyed-in-the-wool Texan with a taste for witchcraft and the Tarot, Bessie provides a much needed complement to Esme’s hyperactive energy. Ms. Blum moves and speaks slowly, but the fire in her eyes betrays her character’s natural intensity. Precise and methodical in her performance, Ms. Blum allows Bessie’s deep-rooted delusions to slowly and gruesomely unfold over the course of the play. The gradual revelation of the sort of life these two women have been leading over the years is as shocking as it is fascinating. Ann Fraistat, as SJ (who, in a remarkable feat, only joined the cast as an emergency pinch hitter this past Tuesday) is the final critical pillar of the show. She is bruised, both physically and emotionally, and her embodiment of life in the shackles of domestic abuse is chilling. However, she possesses a strength that may perhaps hold the key to liberating them all. Although there is a lot of darkness in God Don’ See Ugly, SJ helps make the play into a sort of happy tragedy, and the weird little family that these three women create is veritably heartwarming.
I always think the same thing when I step into the tiny black box space of the Venus Play Shack: How on earth are they going to fit a whole play in here? But Director Deborah Randall’s ingenious use of her space makes the action appear natural and unconstrained. At times, the actors go backstage and continue to speak, giving the audience a unique and purely auditory experience that feels like an addition, not a subtraction. God Don’ Like Ugly is mostly straight up realist drama, but it is punctuated by moments of gorgeously stylized physical theatre. These are the scenes that give us glimpses of the hitherto unknown Ella Margaret (also played by Cathryn Benson) and her mysterious tango partner known only as “The Stranger” (played by the strapping Gray West).
The natural movement of bodies on stage is facilitated by Scenic Designer Elizabeth McFadden’s wonderful set, whose dominant characteristic is the shell of an actual 1960s VW bug. A simple screen door and some creaky wood are sufficient to evoke the entire crumbling edifice of an East Texas farmhouse that has seen better days. Sound Designer (and Ms. McFadden’s spouse) Neil McFadden delivers a characteristically compelling sound design, full of Americana country but not overwhelmed by the genre. Lighting Designer Amy Belschner-Rhodes creates some beautiful effects, especially a flickering light that in one stroke sums up the rustic setting.
God Don’ Like Ugly is by no means a light comedy or frothy musical. But strangely, despite the darkness and intensity, I was left not with a feeling of despondency, but rather triumph. This is the first of Venus Theatre Company’s “Feral 15” season, and I suppose that the soul of the show is ultimately comparable to a feral cat: scrappy, bruised, but somehow alive to fight another day. And if that isn’t a fitting fable for modern day feminism, I don’t know what is.
Running Time: Two hours and fifteen minutes, with one intermission.
God Don’ Like Ugly plays through April 12, 2015 at Venus Theatre Company, performing at the Venus Play Shack – 21 C Street, in Laurel, MD. For tickets, purchase them at the door, call the Box Office at (866) 811-4111, or buy them online.