Nobody likes the highly-principled bossy one. Or the rich daddy’s girl. Or the show stealer. Or the snarky one. Yet when you put them all together in a show-within-a-show production, you want every last one of them to be your new best friend.
The Brazen-Faced Varlets’ production of ‘The Anastasia Trials in the Court of Women’ is a play about a play that’s a courtroom drama. It’s even interactive. In brief, it’s a hoot.
The show in Alleyway Theatre’s Cabaret stage starts just before curtain for the The Emma Goldman Theatre Brigade. To be ever egalitarian, cast members learn all the roles and character assignments are literally pulled names from a hat. Marie the idealist (Jamie Nablo) is adamant about the process and its inherent fairness. Donna the snark (well played by Kathleen Rooney) is confident that collective founder Diane (Priscilla Young-Anker) palms the best role to keep it for herself. Stagehand Betty (Heather Fansgrud) is tossed into the mix, a reluctant thespian who prefers to be off stage, with her angst about having to learn so many lines. Melissa and Amy (Jessie Miller and Emily Pici respectively) just want to get on with it, because the critics are coming! Jenny (Jennifer Arroyo) is eager for her big break but is sick as the proverbial dog. Athena (Stefanie Warnick) wants to stretch her acting chops with a juicier role. Then the playwright (Caroline Parzy-Sanders) walks in with – gasp! – changes, and –gasp encore!! – a whole NEW character which she will portray.
And this is how we meet the cast, as they finagle their way into the role they want…or least dread.
It’s where Carolyn Gage’s script is at its best: it’s the people who make a relationship story, whether they are good or self-absorbed. The Emma Goldman Theatre Brigade is a sisterhood, after all, based on equality, and the show they’re staging is about a woman in need and her female tribe who is supposed to help. Well, sometimes equality and support go right out the window when it’s inconvenient and messy. The Varlets play this angle to the hilt. And – like the best theatre – it gives you a bit of mental pause on the ride home, too.
The court battle is a history-mystery mash up: five women are on trial for turning their backs on woman who may be Anastasia, the only person to survive the the murder of Russian Czar Nicholas’ family.
But it’s the actor-women and their frustration with their troupe and each other that bring the laughs. Rule-follower Marie breaks from the script to make her personal points. Diane the director floats in and out of character to defend her authority on stage. It’s like good slapstick: you wouldn’t tolerate these behaviors if they really happened onstage, but you almost really want them to happen because this is where the veneers lift away and someone’s true colors show.
The audience interaction helps decide on court decisions and we have responsibility for the final verdict, too. That’s empowering and a lot of fun, too.
‘The Anastasia Trials in the Court of Women’ is a fast couple hours with a 10-minute break, and runs until February 2. Visit www.varlets.org for details.