Art manifests when dark matter is shaken, stirred, and flipped into a brilliant light, which is what playwright Doc Andersen-Bloomfield and Director Deborah Randall have achieved with God Don’ Like Ugly. A tiny show (the entire black box space is no bigger than a small studio apartment) with big impact that is, contrary to its name, simply beautiful.
Set in Nowhere, Texas, country music reigns and an aging powder blue VW Beetle/Bug rusts in a junky yard sometime not too long ago for Bessie (Nancy Blum)—a tarot card reader—and her daughter, Esme Marie (Cathryn Benson). Bessie, yoked to Esme for life, seems a woman put-upon and sentenced to misery as she cares for her adult child.
Esme—a thirty-six year old born with a disability that keeps her mentally at age seven—rambles incessantly and parrots those around her. She’s infuriatingly repetitive, and sweetly endearing, as she repeatedly seeks to “fix” the VW, telling Bessie that she’ll do it to make her happy.
Oh, and she sings. A lot. Especially golden oldies like “I Don’t Know Why (I Just Do).”
Everything about Bessie and Esme’s world looks and feels bleak. Slightly threadbare, even the way they talk. Like a clock that stopped and, with it, so did life.
“Zeus, Zeus, he gone away,” Esme repeats as Bessie asks after the family dog. Soon Esme tells us that Ella Margaret, her beloved twin, has gone away too. And we know that’s the stopped moment.
Except, time does trudge on—even when those who are alive but not living don’t—and its time for Esme and Ella’s birthday. Again. Bessie, though, just sits on her front stoop—a weathered structure stripped of any color—willing the cards to show her something good.
That good is SJ (Ann Fraistat)—a battered woman seeking refuge who stumbles upon Bessie’s property. Her appearance, and need for protection from her estranged husband, awakens Bessie and Esme to actions they should have taken a long ago to keep Ella from leaving with a mysterious “Stranger” (Gray West).
Randall has created a remarkable, understated, and uplifting look at triumph. Triumph over domestic abuse, physical disability, and mental illness. She blends realism and fable, a bit of myth and a dose of magic, to leave one feeling, not bereft of joy, but inspired. A tough task (Is abuse and illness ever easy?) complicated by a seemingly unreliable narrator (Esme) with a speech impediment. Yet, the shear physical movement Randall pulls from the cast paints a picture clearer than any spoken words about who’s really yoked, who’s empowered, and who becomes strength incarnate when facing strife.
As Esme, Cathryn Benson stomps around, dances uninhibited, and coddles a child’s riding toy as if it’s a pet. She’s like a tornado that lives in a wave—verve and nerve couched in a deceptively placid shell—and, even with her slurred speech, she conveys wisdom in Esme’s muddled words that, when you listen, tell the truth of all that’s happened in the past. Strangely, she turns out to be the most lucid of the bunch. A bunch described by SJ as “on old witch, a delightful child and me,”—a woman with a black eye, shaky hands, and the desire to die in order to find freedom from abuse.
Benson also doubles up as Ella Margaret in a serious of tango-esque dance interludes that articulate Ella’s relationship with the mysterious “Stranger.” Gray West is ALL presence in these scenes: an overbearing brute that uses physical means to get whatever he wants. While Fraistat, stepping into the role of SJ only days before the opening, plays a vulnerable woman who knows she’s vulnerable without fear.
GOD DON’ LIKE UGLY
March 19 – April 12
Venus Theatre at
Venus Theatre Play Shack
21 C Street
Laurel, MD 20707
1 hour, 40 minutes with no intermission
Thursdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
Nancy Blum’s Bessie is the sanity holding a tenuous existence aloft. But is she? Sane that is. As SJ plummets into panic, knowing she has mere hours before her husband turns up, Bessie says she’ll conjure a spell to keep him away and tells SJ “All you gotta’ do is believe.” Blum’s turn is slight, nearly unseen, and crucial to the story. It’s a brilliant performance paired with Benson’s amazing transformation (and quick scene changes between Ella and Esme) and Fraistat’s palpable fragility. These actors exemplify perfection. Everything they put on the stage ebbs and flows rhythmical and reverberates in an emotional cacophony—fear, hope, love, freedom, pain, sadness. It’s all there.
Randall, who chose this original play out of hundreds, also put together the set—a seemingly scrappy pile of rubbish cleverly placed. I mean, she brought a car into the venue. Well, half of one. It’s integral to the story, and a major part of the immersive, intimate, atmosphere that envelops the audience. The blood, sweat, and tears it took to get that thing placed just right were worth it. Every. Single. Drop.
Laurel, Maryland seems like a trek—with nearly 20 whole miles between it and the glamour of downtown DC, with it’s flashy, national venues like Arena Stage and Kennedy Center—but it’s a journey worth taking; Venus Theatre reminds us with God Don’ Like Ugly not only what art is, but how it can be made anywhere and with anything. Half an old VW Bug, a rickety screen door, some shabby furniture, and about 500 square feet can spin magic in the right hands.
The right hands being those that belong to an exquisite cast, a gifted director, and a poetic wordsmith.
Whether or not God likes ugly doesn’t matter. This show is anything but and one of the best in the DMV this year.
God Don’ Like Ugly by Doc Andersen-Bloomfield . Directed by Deborah Randall (and Set Construction and Props and Costumes) . Featuring Cathryn Benson, Nancy Blum, Ann Fraistat, and Gray West . Scenic design: Elizabeth McFadden . Lighting design: Amy Belschner-Rhodes . Sound design: Neil McFadden . Choreography: Maria Lin Yaffe . Produced by Venus Theatre . Reviewed by Kelly McCorkendale.