By Stanford Friedman
Summer in New York is a time to turn toward new and experimental theater. With Broadway on cruise control, one eagerly awaits the upcoming New York Musical Festival and FringeNYC. One could traipse over to 59E59 for the East to Edinburgh Festival. Or, one might find himself in a converted apartment theater on Christopher Street watching a Civil War era psychopathic nurse systematically poison her men amid a series of stillbirths, collapsing bodies, piercing screams and a simulated strangulation. Welcome to The Execution of Mrs. Cotton. Lemonade?
In this mostly joyless production, Sara Fellini wears many hats. She is the playwright as well as the scar-faced yet comely title character. She is also credited with scenic, costume and prop design. She wrote the lyrics for the couple of gritty songs and handles public relations to boot. What she fails to do, however, is to create any likable character or find much purpose behind the on-stage homicidal tirades. Presented in the round, with the audience as the presumed jury, a Prosecutor (director Samuel Adams) narrates, and another 11 actors demonstrate, the atrocities carried out by this “blood sucker.” Like a good trial lawyer, Ms. Fellini tells us what we are going to see, shows it to us, and then tells us what we just saw. This is a tried and true courtroom procedure, but in a drama it’s just a bummer. Scene 1: Mrs. Elva Zona Heaster Cotton stands accused of killing everybody. Scenes 2-7: She kills everybody. Scenes 8 and 9: Guilty, and punished, as charged.
Some of her victim/husbands are, at least, enjoyably despicable. Erasmus Stribbing-Trout Shue (John Hardin) is a pastor who cannot stand the sounds of innocent sufferers, and Azra Todd (Adam Belvo) is a “Cajun pervert” with a Porky Pig stutter and a proclivity for exhibitionism. So, drink deep your arsenic-spiked quaffs, young men. And, there are some visually stunning characters as well. Phaona (Linnea Larsdotter) is a partially deaf and blind nurse, and the closest thing Elva has to a friend. With her face wrapped in gauze and ear horns protruding from each ear she is startling, but her character has little influence and poor Ms. Larsdotter is tasked with generating sympathy with her face totally obscured. The most terrifying character is Hollermoppet (an unrecognizable Kelly McCready), a demon slave child whose mouth is stitched shut. Without the benefit of being able to speak, Ms. McCready is spooky as Hell as she repeatedly shows up to cart away the dead. The play does have a hook, two actually, but they are appended to the arms of yet another fatality, Zachariah Nattrass (Cairo George). Mr. George turns in a strong performance amid the corpses, and we pity poor Zach as he realizes the fatal depths of Elva’s betrayal. Zina Ellis is solid as Margaret who, for some reason, serves as a second narrator, further disrupting the play’s structure until she is, you know, poisoned.
What the production lacks in subtle lighting, it makes up for in crafted costuming, and Adams stages the work admirably, keeping the action rotating around a 5’x’5 gallows platform. And hopefully he has learned, after opening night, to keep the air conditioning on at all times. But sweltering or not, his biggest sin is to let the first act drone on for a staggering hour and 45 minutes. If the writing demanded it, that would be one thing, but that is not the case here. Moving the break to the 75 minute mark would surely have resulted in a few more audience members hanging around for the final hanging.
The Execution of Mrs. Cotton – Written by Sara Fellini, directed by Samuel Adams.
WITH: Samuel Adams (Prosecutor), Adam Belvo. (Azra Todd), Zina Ellis (Margaret Cotton), Sara Fellini (Elva Zona Heaster (Cotton)), Jennifer Fouché (Velouria Rhapsody Todd), Cairo George (Zachariah Nattrass), John Hardin (Erasmus Stribbing-Trout Shue), Linnea Larsdotter (Phaona Cross), Wes Mason (Aquilla Quick-Manning), Kelly McCready (Hollermoppet), Costa Nicholas (Frederick Cotton) and Sarah Ellen Stephens (Jaynes Quick-Manning).
Scenic design by Sara Fellini and spit&vigor, lighting design by spit&vigor, costume and prop design by Sara Fellini; Jonathan Phipps, stage manager. spit&vigor at IRT Theater’s 3B Residency series, 154 Christopher Street, # 3B. http://www.spitnvigor.com/ Through July 31. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.