Review of ‘Wicked Creatures’
Review of ‘Wicked Creatures’
By Hephzibah Dutt
The Living Room Theatre’s Emma Carter gifts us with an incisively clever new play, Wicked Creatures.
Set in Victorian England, Carter’s 90-minute play invokes a host of hard topics, all of which are comically juxtaposed against the facade of Victorian gentility. Factor in superbly-subtle exposition, dynamic characters, witty dialogue and a relentless undercurrent of humor and horror, and the result is a darkly funny, culturally-relevant play that simultaneously entertains and challenges.
Cross-dressing and culturally-forward Sonja Smithson (Ellen Kirk) and her pure-hearted cousin, Emily (played by the playwright) “acquire” an experimental test object in the form of Archibold Worthington III (Brian Huther), a professor and proponent of Victorian gender ideals. In Sonja’s pursuit of developing the perfect female contraceptive, she hires a prostitute, the vulgar but good-natured, Clara Hollowell. Set against the elegance of an English county manor, and in the name of science of social service, terrible deeds are wrought against poor Archie. “Incorruptibly good” Emily is torn between dutiful gratitude and conscience while Clara is embroiled in the vagaries of class difference, and a yearning to improve her lot in life. Gender roles, experimentation ethics, class struggle, rape, abortion, miscarriage, marriage, contraception— all these are stirred to the surface. Without any easy resolutions or a trace of sermonizing, this production ultimately showcases dangers of any sort of extremism, be it gender roles, science, or silence.
A playwriting seminar offered by The Living Room Theatre was the genesis-pod for this new work. Carter shared that she was jump-started (by a homework assignment) into a play that was on its way to becoming a Victorian fantasy-horror flick. Along the way, she stumbled into real-life horrors of extreme gender-dualities and the strifed realities of pregnancy, childbirth, abortion and miscarriages in a time when contraceptives for women were little more than a distant “holy grail.” The rigour of her dramaturgical process is evident in the careful (but not stringent) historicity of the play, and delightful use of intertextuality. She weaves in Darwin, Ruskin’s, “Of Queen’s Garden,” The Scarlet Letter, and various myths all to great effect. Carter’s clever use of Ruskin’s text, in particular forms a lynchpin of sorts; it offers the debated ideal of women in the Victorian age (…She must be enduringly, incorruptibly good”), while exposing the troubling angel-whore dichotomies that ensue. Indeed, a recurring theme is the danger of extreme polarizations, and Carter’s characters reflect our own retaliatory, self-righteous tendencies back at us. Consider how Sonja works to resist gender oppression, only to participate in classist superiority—one that inveigles an uneducated, needy person into committing horrible crime against another.
I am delighted that this complex script was brought to its first fruition by such an all-around strong ensemble. For a cast of characters that could have easily become caricatures, Kirk, Carter, Curtis, Huther and Jacobs instead deliver fully-rendered, honest portrayals of human beings who evoke our empathy. An especially warm commendation to Jacobs and Huther. Their skill is never more palpable than in the rape scene: balancing humor and brutality, they tickle us into laughter and simultaneously chill us with the solemnity of what we witnessed. Shawnna Journagan’s directorial prowess is evident: without her dynamic staging, this dialogue-heavy script would have devolved into clunky, talky play. If there is one critique to offer, it was the restraint of the climactic scene. The production seemed like it was straining to be unhinged, and I longed to see the characters and action pushed –just for a moment—to the completely raw, animalist edge of reason and chaos… for, after all, we are promised monsters in the woods."
By Nurturing A 23-Year-Old Playwright, The Living Room Creates Promising 'Junk'
Steve Walker, 2015
At just 23 years old, Emma Carter is making a name for herself in Kansas City as a playwright.
By the close of this year, Carter will have had her work staged at several venues around town, including a production of her play Junk, opening this weekend at the Living Room downtown.
A play about recognizable twenty-somethings salving emotional scars, Junk arose out of initiatives at the Living Room that help the theater company widen its talent pool. Bryan Moses teaches play-writing classes and the Writer's Den series gives some of that writing a public airing in the form of staged readings. Carter was a participant in both.
"Emma's work was an immediate standout," says Rusty Sneary, the Living Room's artistic director. "She has a great natural sense for structure and a wonderful voice for very natural dialogue."
The Living Room selected Junk from last year's Writer's Den to receive a workshop production, meaning Carter was able to work with a director from casting through staging, with a full rehearsal, design team and tech process. Its two-week run starts Thursday.
Developing a voice
Junk features four characters: Gabe, heartbroken from a recent break-up; Quinn, his ex-girlfriend; Al, his female roommate, who helps him cope at the expense of her own issues; and Intense Female Jogger, a character Carter says represents "some comic relief."
Carter admits she drew on her life experience to invent the four characters.
"I've been Al, where there's someone I love who I really care about and spend more time taking care of them than myself. Quinn is relatable in the sense that she comes off as if she's selfish and spoiled and a villain but it all comes from a place of vulnerability. I know people like that."
Most of us know an Intense Jogging Girl as well: "the bright, fresh young person, yet to be jaded by any of these things the other characters are jaded by. She's still open-minded and her heart is open," Carter says.
But Carter's work isn't solely autobiographical.
"Every one has been, or will be, one of these characters at some point in time," she says.
Carter grew up in Fulton, Missouri, and graduated from the theater program at Stephens College in Columbia. Though her focus in school was acting, Carter says she developed these characters within the two play-writing classes she had enrolled in with a friend.
"The beginning class was about finding your voice as a playwright," she says "We would write a little bit of something and then come back and share it with each other and read it aloud. I was excited but the first thing I wrote didn't even have names for the characters."
After graduating in 2013 with acting credentials, Carter was cast in Egads Theatre's Carrie: The Musical, prompting her move to Kansas City.
Her favorite lesson from working with Moses at the Living Room, Carter says, is that theater is a collaboration.
"You can't just sit at home and write your play and expect to just go out and do it. You have to talk with people and share it with people and get critiques from people you trust and respect."
She found those people within The Living Room's collective of actors, writers, directors, and designers.
"When I was writing Junk, I said, 'Wouldn't it be cool if The Living Room did this?' In my head, that was an underlying dream that I had. And I got lucky that I had a great cast of actors to bring it to life. That's a big thing as a playwright: crossing your fingers and hoping the actors and director get what you're trying to say. And they did. Immediately."
Not just 'Junk'
Carter also wrote a script for The Living Room's No Sleep November project, where writers are tasked with creating plays overnight.
"Emma presented one of the most cohesive scripts with a very solid beginning, middle, and end," Sneary says. "That structure seems like a no brainier, but can be extremely difficult to achieve."
In September, Carter won the local Project Playwright competition, where plays are created over two weekends from pre-scripted ideas. For one of this year's assigned themes,"Family," she came up with a trio of vampire sisters.
Also this weekend, she has a short play called The Bell-ringer in The Barn Player's 6 x 10 Ten Minute Play Festival.
She recently closed a run in The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail at Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre as well, demonstrating equal ease behind and in front of the footlights.
"I'm still auditioning, still interested in acting," Carter says. "But I'm definitely feeling more confident and comfortable with playwriting in a way that I don't feel with acting."
Acting is fun, she says, but playwriting feels like more of an accomplishment because she's "created something that wasn't there before."
The same could be said of her arrival on Kansas City's artistic scene, but Carter's refreshingly unassuming about that.
"It's been a good year," she says.
Steve Walker is a freelance arts reporter and film critic at KCUR 89.3. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Emma Carter's Junk runs December 10-20 at The Living Room, 1818 McGee, Kansas City, Missouri, 816-533-5857. The 6 x 10 Ten Minute Play Festival runs December 11-13 at The Barn Players, 6219 Martway in Mission, Kansas, 913-432-9100.
Now playing: Junk at the Living Room Theatre
Liz Cook, The Pitch, 2015
Late addendum to the list "Things That Make You Nostalgic for Leaning Against Buildings and Smoking Cloves": Emma Carter's Junk, a hip, homegrown play stretching its legs at the Living Room.
Carter's script, plucked from the theater's playwriting class and subsequent Writer's Den series, follows two 20-something Seattle roommates seeking salve for old wounds. Junk-artist Gabe (Ben Auxier, stumbling into women with the hit rate of a truffle pig) drafts a whimsical "not-a-bucket list" to help him recover from a bad breakup. His roommate, Al (Melissa Fennewald, with Meg Ryan charm), helps him check off the boxes, secretly hoping, perhaps, to be next in line.
Carter braids Gabe's past and present in short, cinematic scenes that drive home what he has lost (Quinn, requisite Manic Pixie Dream Girl) and what he has found (Al, recovering fuckup and ambiguously rape-y caretaker). Fans of indie-quirk odes to romance and brokenness — I'm brooding at you, Garden State — will fall for Carter's easygoing dialogue and oddball characters. But the script is funny in its own geeky, big-hearted way, its sarcasm masking a core of sincerity.
Natalie Liccardello and Tim Ahlenius direct, eliciting top-notch performances from Auxier, Fennewald and supporting players Erika Baker and Alisa Lynn. Come for the bittersweet meet-cutes, stay for the all-Mountain Goats score.