By Sara Fellini; Directed by Samuel Adams
Produced by spit&vigor
Off Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 7.31.16
IRT Theater, 154 Christopher Street
by Zachary Conner on 7.17.16
Cairo George, Adam Belvo, Samuel Adams, Sara Fellini, John Hardin, and Wes Mason in The Execution of Mrs. Cotton
BOTTOM LINE: A darkly comedic tale of a female serial killer in the postbellum South that makes up in great performances what it lacks in strength of script.
When asked to consider the likes of Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, and other notorious serial killers, we naturally are filled with disgust, fear, anger, and an overwhelming urge to deny any sort of innate connection to those individuals convicted of such grizzly and disturbing crimes against humanity. In her new play The Execution of Mrs. Cotton, Sara Fellini asks us to do the complete opposite —sympathize with a woman who turns her blood lust against the people closest to her—her lovers and children.
Produced by spit&vigor theatre company, The Execution of Mrs. Cotton chronicles the life and times of Elva Zona Heaster Cotton (Sara Fellini). Beginning in a courtroom, the prosecutor (Samuel Adams) gives us a little background on the troubled upbringing of Elva, along with interjections by Margaret Cotton (Zina Ellis). He invites us to take a step back in time to closely examine each and every victim so that we can see for ourselves how such a woman could only deserve the condemnation of death.
Immediately the show is intriguing, presented in the round with all audience members facing central raised gallows. Dispersed among audience members are chairs in which actors sit and watch the action before them, occasionally stepping up to take part in scenes, acting as additional set pieces, and even chiming in with sound effects to further amplify the main action at hand. There is also enough room behind the seating on stage for actors to circle around the audience, creating an almost predatorial quality to their movement.
After learning of her role in the “War of Northern Aggression,” and her training as a nurse on the battlefield under close watch of Phaona Cross (Linnea Larsdotter), we observe Elva meet and eventually marry a young priest named Erasmus Stribbling-Trout Shue (John Hardin). This chapter of the story, along with many others, is instructed to us by the prosecutor to excuse the downfalls in character of the victims, so that we can truly appreciate the horrific deeds committed by Elva. We are seemingly primed to hate her before we can even begin to find a way in for understanding.
Before Erasmus’s death by Elva’s poison, however, a morbid photographer by the name of Azra Todd (Adam Belvo) is brought in to photograph Elva and Erasmus with their stillborn baby. While there is textual clarification presented to us that Azra is an unbalanced, somewhat psychotic pervert, he ends up being one of the most likeable characters in the piece. Belvo plays him with a greasy likeability that is infectious and almost redeeming given his character’s shady exploits in pornography. His eventual downfall at the hands of Elva’s arsenic cocktail is unceremonious. The weight and time given to the death of other men in Elva’s life seems disproportionately longer than what is paid to Azra’s, which is a big disappointment. We are made to genuinely like him as a character, so his quick death seems almost to be a footnote in the story’s progression.
The plot then continues with Erasmus dead, Elva with her new love Azra, and the two, along with Phaona, moving to Louisiana to stay with Azra’s sister Valouria Rhapsody Todd (Jennifer Fouche). Valouria is nicknamed the Bandit Queen of New Orleans, and both her physical presence and characterization do justice to such a title. As the head of a bandit safe-haven, Valouria is dangerous, larger than life, and a raging alcoholic. Providing temporary shelter to Elva and Azra, her generosity almost seems to come with a price. It’s her mistrust for Elva that leads to her death, but not before a wickedly entertaining performance by Fouche. While staying with Valouria and her bandits, Elva meets Aquilla Quick-Manning (Wes Mason)—the proverbial tortured artistic soul cleverly disguised in a rough-around-the-edges masculine façade. He casts a metaphorical spell over Elva, enchanting her with his music, as many bad-boy musicians tend to do.
Speaking of music, the play features live performances by Mason on the guitar and Sarah Ellen Stephens as Jaynes Quick-Manning—the fiddler sister of Aquilla. While the music is all beautifully performed, and for the most part logical to the story, the play suffers from one too many guitar pieces: in one scene, Mason performs two full songs almost back to back, with little textual explanation or motivation. It’s moments like this that could have been edited down to give the piece more quickness in pacing.
After a while, Elva continues with her poisoning, with many more characters dropping like flies, until Elva finally meets her maker at the show’s conclusion. But the plot often feels convoluted, and the many deaths become almost comedic. At times the story meanders, takes longer than it should in some areas, and presents sources of conflict that shouldn’t be sources of conflict to begin with: for example, why is it such a big deal that Jaynes can actually play the fiddle well? The performances given by much of the cast are all top-notch. Fellini carries the piece exceedingly well as the titular character, presenting an almost feral powder keg of a woman. However, these performances get bogged down behind a script that needs serious revisions, edits, and an overall focus on what it is that's important to the show’s central message. If we’re meant to feel bad for Elva by the show’s conclusion, then that idea is completely missed. After all, each killing seems less and less justified. We cease to see moments of regret or any kind of thought process from Elva, and instead are presented with a killing machine who loses value with each additional body thrown into the mix.
At times, The Execution of Mrs. Cotton is an entertaining study of a serial killer in the postbellum South. Otherwise, it exists as a piece that ultimately suffers from a script that poisons the efforts given by its actors.
(The Execution of Mrs. Cotton plays at IRT Theater, 154 Christopher Street, through July 31, 2016. The running time is 2 hours 25 minutes with one intermission. Performances are Thursdays through Sundays at 8. There is a matinee performance on July 24 at 3; and no evening performance that day. Tickets are $15 and can be found at brownpapertickets.com.)
The Execution of Mrs. Cotton is by Sara Fellini. Directed by Samuel Adams. Choreography is by Adam Belvo. Set Design is by Sara Fellini and spit&vigor. Lighting Design is by spit&vigor. Costume and Prop Design by Sara Fellini. Original music by C.W.K. Lyrics by Sara Fellini. Performed by Wes Mason. Violin Extemporization by Sarah Ellen Stephens. Stage Manager is Jonathan Phipps. Assistant Stage Manager is Jake Gilford. Light Board Operator is Jonathan Phipps.
The cast is Sara Fellini, Zina Ellis, Linnea Larsdotter, Samuel Adams, John Hardin, Adam Belvo, Cairo George, Wes Mason, Sarah Stevens, Costa Nicholas, Jennifer Fouche, Kelly McCready.