No One’s Out of Order in the Court Room

The cast of “The Anastasia Trials in the Court of Women” by Brazen-Faced Varlets.

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.

First Look: “Night Mother’ by Brazen-Faced Varlets

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Heather Fangsrud as Jessie Cates and Priscilla Young-Anker as Mama (Thelma) Cates.

For Lara Harberberger, executive/artistic director of Brazen-Faced Varlets, giving women the opportunities to experience artist growth as actors is her mission, “There are not many shows where women are given the chance to grow and develop their artistic strengths,” says Harberberger. “We pick shows, by women, that have strong female characters that allow women to shine.” The mission of the Brazen-Faced Varlets continues with their production of the Pulitzer prize winner ‘’Night Mother’ by Marsha Norman, opening March 10.

“I first heard about the play in high school, and later in my life I was able to stage manage a production of it in Rochester” says Harberberger. “It is so well written and has such meaty roles for two women actors.”

“‘Night Mother” by tells the story of a woman in her thirties, who plans on committing suicide by the end of the night, all in real time. “There is not much comedy in this show,” says Harberberger, “but the dynamic between these two women who are playing these roles is wonderful.”

Harberberger says to bring your tissues.

“Both actors are thrilled to be working on this show,” says Harberberger. This production stars Heather Fangsrud as Jessie, and Priscilla Young-Anker as Jessie’s mother Thelma. “This show is especially exciting for Priscilla, who has not had the opportunity to play a role of this magnitude.” 

Brazen-Faced Varlets perform their shows at the intimate setting of Rust Belt Books. “I’ve talked to people and they said that they really love this show, but they also said that by staging it in the small setting, the audience will also feel closed in like Jessie does,” says Harberberger. “This is truly an influential American play. “

This is the third show of the 2017/2018 season for the Brazen Faced Varlets. They opened their season back in August with “Shakespeare’s La Pucelle,” and most recently performed “Desdemona: A Play About A Handkerchief” by Pulitzer prize winning playwright Paula Vogel.

“This season has been about women making choices that society might not think are right,” says Harberberger, “and this one is sure to be powerful.”

“‘Night Mother” opens March 10 and runs until March 25, 2018. For more information, click here.

Promotional Consideration Paid For By The Theatre Alliance Of Buffalo.

First Look: ‘Desdemona: A Play About A Handkerchief’ by Brazen-Faced Varlets

“Desdemona: A Play About A handkerchief” opens October 12, 2017 and is produced by the Brazen-Faced Varlets.

When it comes to strong female characters in theatre, it would be safe to say that there needs to be more work done in bringing exciting female characters to the stage. Writers need to evoke the importance of strong female characters, and although there is some progress being made in this area, there is still room forgreat improvement. One company in Buffalo who works to give strong female characters and women the spotlight is the Brazen-Faced Varlets.

Started in 2006, Brazen-Faced Varlets makes it their mission to perform at least one show each season written by a female playwright, as well as re-imagining the theatre canon by casting women to play iconic roles. “Women don’t get to grow as theatrical artists,” says Lara Harberberger, co-founder of Brazen-Faced Varlets and Director of “Desdemona”, “we love to pick works where women are able to shine.”

“Desdemona: A Play About A Handkerchief” is written by Paula Vogel, whose play “Indecent” just played a successful run on Broadway. “Desdemona” is a fresh take on Shakespeare’s “Othello” but focuses on his wife, Desdemona and her tales of conquest. “Its the women’s point of view in this story, of a show Buffalo knows so well,” says Harberberger, “Buffalo is a Shakespeare town. We are happy to produce this very dark comedy based on Shakespeare’s work, all thought this is not at all what he imagined it to be.”

In “Othello,” Desdemona’s fate is sealed, but this show allow us to hear her story. “October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and we find it fitting that we can perform this show to raise awareness for the month,“ says Harberberger, “Desdemona is killed by her husband, and we want to bring more awareness to domestic violence through this production.”

Brazen-Faced Varlets are known for their dark, off color comedies. “This show is great because we see that Desdemona really doesn’t like her husband, she isn’t faithful, and she is a spoiled brat,” says Harberberger.

Paula Vogel writes this tale, and according to Harberberger, it is very special. “I served as the Assistant Director for Woolly Mammoth’s production of the “Mineola Twins” while working on my MFA at the Catholic University of America where Paula is an alum. I got to speak with her at the cast party. She was very supportive” This is the first time that the Brazen-Faced Varlets will produce one of Vogel’s works.

“We are very excited to have received an Arts Services Initiative of Western New York grant to produce this show,” says Harberberger, “Paula’s work hasn’t been done around here in a while, and I know audiences will enjoy what we are planning.”

“Desdemona: A Play About A handkerchief” opens on October 12, 2017 and is presented at Rustbelt Books on Grant Street in Buffalo. For more information, click here.