Raggedy Ann Says Hello
April 13-15, 20-21 • 8 p.m.
Browncoat Pub and Theatre
111 Grace Street
$8-15 • www.guerillatheatre.com
I was excited to have the opportunity to see another of Melfi’s shows. Coupled with a cast that I had not seen many times on stage, I was looking forward to an evening of new experiences. These three scripts were never produced, so they were, for all intents and purposes, unfinished—or as we say in the creative world, “works in progress.” “Raggedy Ann Says Hello” is much more realistic than “Son of Redhead” was, but that is not to say it is meant to be a realistic show. It still meets all the criteria for experimental theatre.
The script revolves around two women sharing a subleased apartment in New York City in the 1970s. We meet the actual sublease holder: Olympia O’Leary (Elyse Rodriguez) in the early morning. Her long, flowing auburn tresses and slim body accentuated by her dancer-like movements immediately cue us to the doll comparisons that are essential to understanding the action of the show. Her best friend, Kim Dolphin (Anna Gamel) argues with her from the bedroom, finally deigning to rise in a beautiful moment of shadow puppetry that illuminates yet another doll metaphor. It unfolds that both women are recently separated from their husbands—though for different yet oddly similar reasons.
The script is in the deft hands of Melissa Stanley—and certainly a better director could not have been found. It needs a female director, because this is a show that primarily explores societal perceptions of women and women’s own struggles with such, through the fascinating mind of Melfi as he would express it in an experimental play. In other words: This is not “The Vagina Monologues” or “For Colored Girls.” It is, however, an interesting look at how we dress ourselves up and play house in real life. Stanley has taken the fourth wall (that invisible wall between the stage and the audience) and instead of breaking it in the traditional sense—having actors move in and out of the seating area—she has dissolved it.
The stage is a doll-house rendition of a New York apartment, complete with wonderful skylights and huge picture windows to enjoy the view. Yet where the windows would be is where the cut-a-way wall from a little girl’s doll house is. We look in and watch the dolls play and rearrange the world and replay the same games. A tea party is still the main action but the undertones change and swirl.
Enter Bobby Ruggero (Brendan Carter), the landlord’s handsome son, who is achingly living in the real world. Carter is very tall, and that physical presence allows him to become almost a beacon to bring the two women back to reality. He’s certainly an immovable object they cannot ignore. He tries to be a good sport and play tea party with them—but reality calls. Carter brings patience in spades to this role as well as a kindness and empathy for every character, both those onstage and those discussed offstage. He also walks in with an air of male authority and a “I work in property management in New York—there is nothing weird you can do that I haven’t seen before” attitude. It’s not aggressive; it’s just matter of fact.
He is the most realistic character in the script, probably because Melfi could write for men better than women. (A common phenomenon for male playwrights—Shakespeare was the same way.)
In hands of a less experienced director this show could easily become tedious. But Stanley looks for each nuance and brings it forth. She expertly uses both actresses to accentuate her vision. Rodriguez plays most of the show straight to the front—even if she is talking to someone next to her, which really drives home the doll-house metaphor.
Gamel spins and spins like a top onstage, all the while exuding a sexuality and glamour that is some sort of cross between Barbie and Scarlett O’Hara. Oh! What messages we send little girls and what disturbing images we grapple with all our lives! Which doll are we today? Which game of tea party are we playing today? Just as we dress dolls, we costume ourselves and act out the games that are expected of us.
Melfi does hit an incredibly powerful note with Olympia’s monologue about imagining her wedding and acting out her bridal procession hundreds of times. It’s the end of the fairy tale: You marry the handsome prince, and for many little girls (and big ones, too), it is the only day of their lives they will get to be a princess. From birth, it is the aspiration of every story.
Gamel’s deep Georgia accent is quite beautiful to listen to, and she manages to carry it through the show remarkably well. The minor power struggles of each conversation between the two women do give and take—usually with Rodriguez winning, because she epitomizes the oldest sister who is used to bossing everyone around. The dialogue could easily descend into the frightening, abusive or scary, but Gamel and Rodriguez manage to keep the tension in line: enough to make us sit on the edge of our seats—but not so much that the real message gets lost in a cliché.
I wish that Melfi was alive to work through this world premiere with Stanley. Two such talented artists would really take this work in progress and hone it until it gleamed. Add in an enthusiastic and hard-working cast and it would be magic. Since I can’t have that, I must be grateful to have all the other ingredients in the equation and even more grateful to have the opportunity as an audience member to re-connect once again with a playwright whose work I respect so much.