Review: “Kittens in a Cage” by Kelleen Conway Blanchard. Music by Rick Miller. Directed by Bret Fetzer. With Francesca Mondelli, Katie Driscoll, Laurel Ryan, Erin Stewart, Tracy Leigh, Erin Pike and Lisa Viertel as The Matron. Now through August 25, 2012 at the Annex Theatre.
Not gonna fool around with this review…let’s cut to the chase. Annex Theatre’s current production of local playwright Kelleen Conway Blanchard’s “Kittens in a Cage” is the funniest, hippest, most entertaining play I’ve seen all summer…which is saying a lot for a better than usual summer that’s included strong work from Strawshop (Accidental Death of an Anarchist), the 5th Avenue (Rent) and big fancy festivals from ACT and Intiman. On paper it sounds slight: “Kittens in a Cage” is a parody of women in prison films so beloved for their camp value and opportunities to feature bosomy women having cat fights and lesbian encounters. It sounds very much like the type of silly show you’d see in a gay bar and performed by drag queens (and, there’s nothing wrong with that type of show!) but while it’s your usual story of the new girl arriving in a badass prison for women and having to deal with tough broads, knife attacks, lesbian lust and nasty prison guards, Ms Blanchard has the audacity to turn a run of the mill parody on its ear by sneaking in horror film elements not to mention several musical numbers with songs specifically composed for this show by Rick Miller. It’s a parody of three different genres at the same time!
But, Kelleen Conway Blanchard’s script rises up above the mundane and while it features plenty of silly jokes about “eating clams” and enough exposed cleavage to fuel the fantasies of a million horny old men in raincoats, it’s also a cleverly constructed piece of theater with camp but fully realized characters and dialogue far wittier than what you would expect from a genre spoof. And, by not solely focusing on spoofing ONE type of genre, but bringing in elements from the worlds of horror films and Broadway musicals, the playwright cleverly creates a new and original work and not just a tired cliche of women in prison films. Not every joke works, and the ending of the play feels a bit rushed, but Ms Blanchard’s gift for creating oddball characters and situations and placing them within the context of a properly structured and paced piece of dramatic writing enables “Kittens” to be both FUN while retaining a sense of literary worth. It’s like eating a really delicious dessert only to discover that the chef has cut the fat and added nutritional value without you even being aware of it. Win/Win!
But, a clever script is only as good as the production that brings it to life and the team behind “Kittens in a Cage” do top notch work with the lead example being Bret Fetzer’s terrifically clever staging of a show that includes cat fights, eye gougings, shower scenes, tap dancing and genetic mutation experiments. Mr. Fetzer also co-designed the equally terrific set, with Ian Johnston, that allows this play to visit a lot of different locales within the prison…and a visit to Mexico as well. And, ALL the design work in “Kittens” is equally spectacular, (made even more amazing by the Annex’s tiny budget) with clever and cunning work from Kyle Thompson (Sound), Tess Malone (Lighting), Meaghan Darling (Costumes) and Jana Hutchison’s superb work on the hair and make-up designs. “Kittens in a Cage” is a smart, good looking production that rivals and frankly exceeds the work done on Intiman’s far larger budgeted and similarly campy “Miracle!” It’s A level work on a D level budget.
“Kittens” also delights because it offers female actors the opportunity to perform in a comedic ensemble…and, the expert work of the seven actresses in “Kittens” will have you begging for more chances to see funny women working together on stage. The play focuses on Junie, the newcomer to the prison, who’s deliciously played by Francesca Mondelli as one part Betty Boop and one part Snooki from “Jersey Shore”. Ms Mondelli is not a familiar face to me but her great comedic AND musical talents have me wanting to see much more of her; it’s excellent work from a fresh, new face.
She’s backed up by an excellent ensemble comprised of veteran Annex performers. Laurel Ryan as Vickie, the tough as nails object of Junie’s affections; Katie Driscoll as the brutal but repressed lesbian guard Nancy; Erin Pike as the mute but delightfully deranged cannibal killer/tap dancing whiz Barbara, and Tracy Leigh as the bosomy Southern Diva/Head Bitch on the Cell Block are all delightfully committed to their larger than life roles and perform them with great hilarity and attention to comedic detail.
But, I have to signal out some special attention to Erin Stewart who expertly plays three very different characters, (a dingbat pregnant inmate named Peggy; Junie’s bitchy opportunistic mom, and the weaselly and eternally victimized inmate Lois) and you frequently forget it’s the same actress playing all three roles. It’s hard enough to give one great comedic performance; Ms Stewart manages to bring three to the table.
And, some might say it’s typecasting; beloved Annex actress Lisa Viertel has played more than one Lady Monster character in an Annex play, but her delightfully macabre Prison Matron is equal parts menace and empathy. Ms Blanchard wrote the material, but a long, delightfully crazy monologue about a deranged pet monkey given by Ms Viertel is just one of many highlights in this production. The writing is terrific and it was perfectly staged by Mr. Fetzer, but the performance is so precisely nuanced and pitched that it becomes a great work of art in the hands of Ms
Viertel. It’s a brilliant performance in a show that’s packed to the gills with them.
In a nutshell: “Kittens in a Cage” is a funny, witty, naughty romp through chicks in prison films, with a spicy dash of horror and all overlaid with a delicious lesbionic sauce of camp and heaving bosoms. It’s the most fun on a Seattle stage happening on a Seattle stage right now, and maybe all year. Do not miss it.