“I’ve never cancelled a show in my life,” Deb Randall told me last Sunday, speaking of Venus Theatre’s production, God Don’ Like Ugly by Doc Andersen-Bloomfield.
Venus, one of the longest continually running feminist theatres in the world, has been producing women playwrights before it was cool. This was to be her 51st play, the first of four being mounted in 2015 at Venus Play Shack in Laurel Maryland and the cast and designers had been video chating over Skype with the playwright from her home in Oxford, England.
The play was one of 200 scripts submitted in 2014, and Randall was taken with the skill of the playwright, the way the characters were drawn, and the journey of the story of loss and brutality.
Bessie Tyack (Nancy Blum) is the aging owner of a dilapidated house in the rural south; she lives in it with her daughter Esme (Cathryn Benson), who has the mind of a seven-year old in spite of the fact that she is about to celebrate her thirty-sixth birthday. Esme has a twin, Ella Margaret (Benson), who doesn’t come around anymore; we soon learn why. The setting is Bessie’s crumbling front porch and decaying yard, the most prominent feature of which is the remains of a wrecked car. Esme loves that car; she pretends to work underneath it while listening to music from the first half of the last century. Occasionally she will belt out one of the oldies, loudly and unselfconsciously.
SJ, a wounded young woman trying to escape her brutal husband, wanders into the Tyack yard hoping for directions to the home of the one foster parent she ever had who truly cared for her.
Interesting story, original characters, yet Randall couldn’t be blamed for wondering whether she’d met her first impossible show.
To start, there was the script. She was deeply committed to producing the play, except for its classic ‘Night Mother finish – a gunblast, then darkness. “We’re past Thelma and Louise,” she told the playwright. “Women need to both overcome and survive.” Andersen-Bloomfield wrote three new endings, and sent in the best one. It worked.
That brought Randall to the next issue – that wrecked car on stage. In case you’ve never been to Venus Play Shack, Randall works her shows in a small circular playing space, 17 feet in diameter, with a maximum audience of 30, seated on two sides, facing each other.
“We couldn’t fake the car. The audience is too close,” Randall said. Set designer Elizabeth McFadden figured it could work if they used the front half of a car, so Randall went to Crazy Ray’s scrap yard in Edgewater. “It’s a dollar to get in, then you walk miles to find what you need.” She found it. But even Crazy Ray’s crazy prices would have shot a huge hole in Venus’s set budget.
“A donor wrote on Facebook – ‘for heaven’s sake. What are you doing at Crazy Ray’s? I’ll donate $500 to get you a car,’” she told me. The donation appeared in the Venus account, Randall wrote to thank the anonymous donor and got this response: “I think being so committed to a show that you’re going to figure out how to chop up a car is awesome!”
GOD DON’ LIKE UGLY
March 19 – April 12
Venus Theatre at
Venus Theatre Play Shack
21 C Street
Thursdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
Over the course of five days, the front section of a rusted out baby blue VW Beetle was bought, Sawzalled in half at Crazy Ray’s by the diminutive man Carlos who, with his assistant, hauled three vinyl bags full of battery operated tools around the lot through ice, snow, and mud. It turned out the car was stuck deep in that mud. A forklift pulled the VW out, secured by seatbelt straps through the front windows and Randall, standing on the open truck, caught the floating Bug in the air and guided it into the bed of her friends landscaping truck. She tested the makeshift tiedowns, though I’d rather not tell you how, and the truck, with the car, was on its way to Venus Play Shack.
But, you are asking – because I did – how did she get the steel car off the truck without a crane, and how did she haul it into the theatre? The half-car drew more attention from residents than Venus had ever had. Naysayers, most of them. But there was Q, a woman with blue hair who happened to be riding her bicycle on Main Street. Randall’s husband Alan Scott, Q and a few others muscled the car off the truck, onto the sidewalk, facing the narrow entrance to the theatre.
(What? You were imagining Venus has a load-in dock?)
But how to get the VW through a 32” door? Randall needed time to think. She called a friend at Laurel’s City Hall to say a car would be spending the night on their sidewalk. “Put show flyers in it.” he suggested. But Randall, less worried about marketing and more worried that someone might play target practice with her precious prop overnight, stayed awake all night in the Venus lobby, guarding her car.
Randall’s friend Bill Bird promised “We will get this car in this theatre.” They needed to make the car fit the doorway. The floorboard and driver’s seat were sawed away and the drive shaft was cut out and unbolted, leaving the shell of the car and its original, undamaged, 1971 windshield. Using dollies, Bird and Randall had a 32″ clearance plan that involved twisting the car in through the front door, starting on its side and then down flat. The lobby’s piano blocked the way so Randall called Q, who, it turns out lived nearby but was waiting on a plumber to arrive. Ten minutes later, a large man in a long coat stepped out of a car and said, “Q sent me.” The three pushed the car, now wrapped in a silky purple comforter, in through the door and up onto the stage. This all to the protestations of Randall’s dog, who ran underfoot barking the alarm that a car was coming inside.
Having the car in place only set the stage for the next hurdle. Two days before first performance, a cast member had a medical emergency. Randall needed a quick replacement and called Ann Fraistat, who has worked at Venus several times. Two hours later, the actor was on the set asking “Who am I playing? Can I read the script?” She would be playing the critical role of SJ, the stranger fleeing domestic abuse.
The cast, who had been working out Randall’s complex movements for the past month, arrived an hour later for their final dress/photo call. At the same time, the playwright, flying in from England, landed at BWI.* Playwright and husband stepped into the theatre two hours after Fraistat’s arrival. By next day’s preview, Fraistat was off book. Rehearsing the new actor into the cast meant there was no time left for tech, but director Randall was in the booth that night, tweaking sound and light cues, to the performance the actors were working out.
And what of the performances? I can’t tell you as the Sunday show we were scheduled to review was cancelled to give the cast a rest. Instead, Randall treated us to this story, showing off the detailede set, acting out Esme’s dance, and seeming still somewhat bewildered by the fact that she now, not only has a show, but one audiences are saying is the best she’s ever done.
This same story can be heard many times over in our community: great art is produced on shoestring budgets, designers create impossible stagings, producers clean toilets of shoulder Sawzalls – whatever it takes to keep the show going, actors respond to emergency calls and are rushed onstage at the last minute, and strangers come together to keep art happening in their town.
It just doesn’t usually happen all at once, to one show.
* Note to readers: No, playwriting hasn’t become so lucrative a profession as to afford international travel, but Andersen-Bloomfield’s husband is a pilot, and after her world premiere at Venus, the two flew to Cancun for the week and will be back at Venus to catch the show again on March 28th before returning to Oxford.
An actor prepares. Cathryn Benson as Esme gives her personal backstage tour of God Don’ Like Ugly.