Carrie is fun, but Brat Productions lacks its usual fire.
Brat Productions, which bills itself as “a theater company for people who don’t like theater (at least not yet),” has long been Philly’s home for unruly productions. Raucous road-trip musical Eye-95, its equally trashy sequel Eye-95 Re-tarred , daylong marathon A 24-Hour Bald Soprano and a host of others have solidified Brat’s reputation as the go-to place for spare, bare-bones theater. The purposely unpolished tradition continues with a staging of Erik Jackson’s Carrie, but doesn’t quite hit the brilliant notes it has struck in the past.
If you’re not familiar with the Stephen King novel or its 1976 Brian De Palma film adaptation: High-school misfit Carrie White is a shy, awkward teenager victimized by an insanely religious mother at home and cruel bullies at school. Carrie at first seems pitiful and naive (she thinks she’s dying when she gets her first period in gym class, a coming-of-age moment that ends in her being cruelly pelted with tampons by classmates), but there’s hints that she has burgeoning, mysterious powers.
Jackson’s script is identified as an adaptation of the novel, but Brat’s production evokes De Palma’s stylish camp classic far more than it does King’s humorless writing. The show even opens with an amusing parody of the film’s gratuitous, steamy locker-room scene. But drawing parallels with the film doesn’t always work out well for Brat, especially in the special effects.
The whole show was produced for a relatively meager $18,500, a pittance for a show laden with nearly 30 special effects. Given the budget, it’s not surprising that Brat chooses to just embrace low-budget cheese, like the blatantly visible wires suspending objects moved by telepathy. But even though it’s tongue-in-cheek, that particular special effect has a distracting side effect; when it’s so obvious that a pair of scissors is going to eventually be flying around, it’s difficult not to look ahead to the end of the scene.
The characters in Jackson’s parody aren’t realistic; stereotypes like the jock, the desperate hanger-on and the sadistic cheerleader are about as shallowly drawn and exaggerated as you’d expect, but the actors do try to give their one-note characters emotional integrity. Carrie’s most malicious classmate is cheerleader Chris (Bethany Ditnes, giving spot-on bitchface), who with hormone-amped boyfriend Billy (Justin Jain) is the catalyst of the horror part of the story. Mariel Rosati is capable as Sue, the popular girl with a nice streak who well-intentionally convinces her boyfriend Tommy Ross (Bradley K. Wrenn, providing a modicum of humor as the dim but good-hearted jock) to take Carrie to prom. And Leah Walton is way, way over the top as Carrie’s abusive, bible-thumping mother.
Then there’s the central conceit of Jackson’s adaptation: The title character is played by a man, Erik Ransom, in drag. But the gender of the person in the role isn’t as much of a factor as you might expect, aside from being an excuse for a few silly one-liners. Ransom’s Carrie is sweetly amusing and sympathetic, and with the volume on almost all the other characters turned up to 11, we have the odd situation of the man in the pink prom dress and frizzy wig basically serving as the straight man. Ransom’s portrayal may not be spectacular or frightening (there’s nothing in Brat’s production that could be considered truly scary), but out of the cast he comes closest to finding balance in the blend of humor, horror and camp.
Given that much of the creative team from Brat’s previous Halloween offering (2009’s excellent Haunted Poe ) returned for Carrie, the lack of ingenuity in the production is especially disappointing. Chris Kleckner’s scenic design is effective depicting and quickly switching between the play’s many locations, but the staging feels very conventional in comparison . While the special effects involved with Carrie would clearly make Poe ’s promenade staging (in which the audience could travel through the production on foot) impractical, one still wishes the production did something to better utilize the nearly 5,000 square feet of the Wolf Building space.
The effects required for the plot of Carrie make it inherently ill-suited to the stage—note the enormously expensive 1988 musical version, considered one of the biggest flops in Broadway history (the New York Times compared the fiery ending to the Hindenberg).
This Carrie is nowhere near going down in flames; in fact, it’s a pretty fun diversion. But considering Brat’s track record as one of the city’s most compelling companies, it has to be considered a minor disappointment.
Through Nov. 7.
Underground Arts at the Wolf Building,
340 N. 12th St.
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