Hellspawn II: Black Aggie Speaks

On December 6, 1885, Miriam Hooper “Clover” Adams, clever, accomplished and rich, took a vial of potassium cyanide to her lips and quaffed it down. She was dead before the vial hit the floor.

Rock Creek Parkway sculpture, commissioned by Henry Adams.

Her bereft husband, Henry Adams, a historian and a son of history (his grandfather and great-grandfather were both Presidents of the United States) eventually erected in her memory one of the most striking memorials ever sculpted. You can see it in Rock Creek Cemetery. It was made in her memory but not to her name, which was not inscribed anywhere on the memorial. Neither was his, when he laid to rest next to her thirty-two years later.

Aside from the memorial, the widower-historian did not have much respect for her historical record: he burned her letters and pictures (she was an excellent photographer) and never spoke her name again.

The story has a bizarre postscript:  the memorial sculpture – the famed Augustus Saint-Gaudens was the artist – proved so popular that the Civil War General Felix Agnus commissioned a lookalike for his own gravesite. Although Saint-Gaudens’ widow threatened legal action, Agnus had it erected and set in Baltimore’s Druid Hill Cemetery, and when he died in 1925, that’s where he was buried.  Unfortunately for the Agnus family, the sculpture soon became part of the landscape of urban legend: the story of “Black Aggie”, who had been jilted by her fiancée and thereafter would kill all who came to her at night. There were the predictable results: daredevils, drunken revels, graffiti. The Agnus family eventually donated it to the Smithsonian, and it now resides on Judiciary Square.

This bit of Washingtonia is the inspiration for Active Culture’s latest, the three-playlet HellSpawn II: Black Aggie Speaks, now being staged in a hollowed-out building in Riverdale Park, Maryland. More melancholy than spooky, HellSpawn II suffers from an identity crisis, in that the three playwrights approach the story from wildly different directions. It also suffers from…well, you’ll see.

(foreground) Alison Talvacchio as Lizzie Cameron in Faceless (Photo: Kate DeAngelis)

The first play, Mary Resing’s Faceless, is an immensely ambitious amalgam of past and present, meant to set forth a possible explanation for the destruction of Mrs. Adams’ artifacts. In one part of the story, Henry Adams (Sun King Davis) reminisces with Lizzie Cameron (Alison Talvacchio) about his Clover, a year after her death. In the other, a well-connected grad student (Meredith Richard) is snowed in at the Hay-Adams Hotel. She is planning on writing her thesis about Clover Adams and is about to run through a treasure-trove of artifacts she has gotten from the National Archives when a mysterious stranger (Ariana Almajan) appears and disrupts everything. These two stories play out on the same stage with grace and precision, a tribute to Lee Makeska Gardner’s direction.

Regrettably, the playlet itself is a bit of a bore, thanks in large part to Resing’s fire-hose exposition. While the author of a play drawn from history owes her audience some context, Resing’s tsunami of facts turns her characters into pedagogical devices. When Henry and Lizzie hear a knock on the door so loud and powerful I thought perhaps Mike Tyson had gone back in time (Kenny Neal’s sound design is terrific), Lizzie says, “it’s probably that awful Mrs. Grover Cleveland.”

“I think the former Frances Folsom is…cheerful,” Henry offers in reply. But would anybody talk that way in real life, even back in the 19th century? And is it really necessary for us to learn the maiden name of the First Lady, who never appears in the course of the story?

Resing has done her research, but there is peril in stuffing your story with unnecessary facts. “I’ve brought you a brandy toddy, on the house,” the Hay-Adams waiter (Manu Kumasi) tells the grad student. Later she replies, “Oh! A Dark and Stormy!” which is, of course, a rum drink.  A good play will tell what it needs to tell, and no more; anything else risks error, and tedium.

Good actors can sometimes redeem weak writing, but I regret that this cast is not the equal to that task. Even Davis, who I have seen give excellent performances elsewhere, is stilted and unconvincing delivering Henry Adams’ stilted and unconvincing lines. Only Almajan escapes the play intact, perhaps in part because she is playing a character who is not fully human.

Resing’s play seeks to pose an answer to the question of why there is no trace of Clover Adams today. Her theory – not to give the story away – is that this was Clover’s own wish. “Erase me,” she pleads. But the problem is that we know plenty about Clover Adams, even today. We know what she looked like, and the letters her husband burned were not her letters, but letters written to her; the letters she wrote were left in the hands of the people to whom she wrote them. She was the subject of a recent, well-regarded biography, (“Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life”, by Natalie Dykstra [Houghton Mifflin]) and, of course, this play.

Manu Kumasi as Tony and Joe Feldman as Steve in What Fresh Hell. (Photo: Kate DeAngelis)

“Erase me,” Clover says in Faceless, but in the very next playlet, Alexandra Petri’s What Fresh Hell, she cries out “remember me,” echoing Hamlet’s late father. Petri, who writes a witty column for the Washington Post, writes witty dialogue for this charming sketch about two drunk fraternity wannabes, Tony (Kumasi) and Steve (Joe Feldman) who are sentenced to spend a night in Lafayette Square with Black Aggie (Talvacchio) as part of their initiation. The other part of their initiation – they must drink twenty-four beers in twenty-four hours – assures that their reasoning powers will not be at optimum when they spend time with the spooky statue.

Of course, drunks trying to rush a fraternity is not exactly a difficult comic target, but Petri’s dialogue is natural and fresh. Drunk Steve is worried that it is not politically correct to refer to “Black” Aggie. “It is the twenty-first century,” he announces primly to Drunk Tony, who is African-American, as he struggles to remain upright. Later, as Drunk Tony tries to explain that something is an allegory, Drunk Steve points out that “Al Gore is still alive.”

You can tell immediately that the actors are more at ease with Petri’s dialogue than they were with Resing’s; Kumasi and Feldman create characters who are easily identifiable as natural bumblers and clowns (important in a short work) and are also very, very funny. Talvacchio, who was stiff and flat in Faceless, is here amusing and engaging as the statue coming to life as Clover Adams. Her mission – and it is not a promising one – is to get these two stooges to remember who she really was. “Remember me,” she whispers at the end, and you will, even if they don’t.

The problem, of course, is that Black Aggie is not Clover Adams; this was the statue that marked General Agnus’ grave, not Clover’s. And even the statue which marked Clover’s grave is not of her; it looks nothing like her, and is meant to represent (I think) sorrow and mystery. It has no formal name, but it is informally called “Grief.”

This disconnect is indicative of the larger (and really, only) problem with What Fresh Hell, which is that it seems like a sketch about generic frat boys tacked on to a story which bears some relationship to the evening’s theme – the death of Clover Adams. The sketch is really good – at its best, it is a sort of low-comedy Waiting for Godot – but the Clover Adams story is not so interesting.

Lee Mikeska Gardner as Deirdre in Grief (Photo: Kate DeAngelis)

Like the Adams statue, the third playlet is called Grief, but this is the sole connection I could find between the Adams story and Michael John Garcés short work. The principal pleasure of Grief is that it allows us to watch Lee Mikeska Gardner, a fabulous actor, work with a difficult monologue.

As Diedre, Gardner plays a woman who has something to say but no idea of how to say it; she stutters, stops, starts over, gestures, winces, throws her hands up in frustration – all the while being a figure of utter fascination.

We watch, open-mouthed, as tidbits of information roll out of her confusion – the value she places on names (does she collect grave rubbings?); the isolation she feels here (all museums and monuments, she notes); the man she always sees at the same place in the cemetery (is he dead? And if so, is she?). Eventually she collapses, and so, in a sense, do we – with a little bit of the Big Mystery revealed.

Somewhat Recommended
Hellspawn II
Closes November 4, 2012
4650 Queensbury Rd
Riverdale, MD 20737
Parking and entrance
around the corner at the
Riverdale train station
1 hour, 25 minutes without intermission
Tickets: $15 – $20
Wednesday, Fridays thru Sundays
Details
Tickets

And then she gets up and does some more – with an Eastern European accent; and then again with a Southern accent; and what was exciting and fresh becomes exhausting, and finally numbing. We get the point, you want to say, even though we don’t exactly know what Garcés’ point is.

We finally move into a fourth monologue, the point of which appears to be that it sucks to be dead. Yea, verily, amen.

The real mystery of Clover Adams is why she, whose life had been sweet and happy to that point, would kill herself. Her father had died earlier in the year, which made her sad, but many people lose their fathers without such a dire response.

But, as with many suicides, there is no logical explanation for what Clover did. It was just who she was. Her aunt poisoned herself; her sister stepped in front of a moving train; her brother fell, or jumped, from a third-floor window. Just as Henry Adams’ family gave us Presidents, scholars and diplomats, Clover Adams’ gave us suicides.

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Hellspawn II: Black Aggie Speaks

Faceless By Mary Resing. Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner

What Fresh Hell By Alexandra Petri. Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner

Grief By Michael John Garcés. Directed by Mary Resing

Features: Meredith Richard, Manu Kumasi, Sun King Davis, Alison Talvacchio, Ariana Almajan, Joe Feldman, and Lee Mikeska Gardner. Set design by Steve Royal; costume design by Brittany Graham; sound design by Kenny Neal; light design by Colin Dierck, and dramaturgy by DW Gregory and JacquelineE. Lawton. Stefan Johnson is the stage manager.

Produced by Active Cultures. Reviewed by Tim Treanor

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Chris Klimek . City Paper

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