Those who are familiar with Stephen King’s first published novel, Carrie , and certainly those who have seen the 1976 classic movie version starring Sissy Spacek, should well have gotten the message by now; messing with Carrie risks disastrous results. Just ask the producers of the eight million dollar Broadway musical version of Carrie that opened and closed in 1988, after just five performances. Now, spanning the month of October, during which the National Center for Bullying Prevention is hosting events to mark National Bullying Prevention Month, and during the same week that the Southern Poverty Law Center premiered in Washington D.C. its movie, Bullied: A Student, a School and a Case that Made History (part of its “Teaching Tolerance” series) BRAT is bringing to stage a campy black comedy version of CARRIE directed by BRAT’s Producing Artistic Director, Michael Alltop.
Though much of the dialogue and sequence of the story is remarkably similar to the 1976 movie version, that is pretty much where the similarity ends. In this send up of the now classic tale of a sadly sexually -repressed and mercilessly bullied high school outcast, who discovers newly acquired telekinetic powers, the part of CARRIE is played by a male actor, Erik Ransom. Playwright Erik Jackson explains that “having the lead character played by a dude in a dress,” makes it strikingly clear that comic liberties with the original story will be taken.
Indeed, the opening night audience seemed well-packed with CARRIE aficionados who easily accepted and for the most part positively responded to this version of CARRIE as performed by BRAT’s talented group of actors. In the same way that fans of the Rocky Horror Picture Show derive fun in anticipating each scene and shtick, fans of the original CARRIE, who find that the excessive liberties taken in BRAT’s version is all just part of the fun, will no doubt similarly enjoy this production.
Cast members clearly were enjoying pulling laughs from the audience with their cartoonish portrayals of such characters as Tommy Ross, who is cajoled into asking Carrie to the prom, and Margaret White, Carrie’s fire and brimstone, Bible-thumping, oppressive mother, who would prefer to lock Carrie in the closet and pray for her salvation than to allow her one night out with a boy, even if it is prom night and Tommy is the most sought after boy in school. Bradley Wrenn as Tommy and Lea Walton as the mother we all thought we had as teenagers, were great fun to watch. Their near-clownish portrayals of these characters consistently rose to scene stealing levels, which in this case is exactly appropriate to this form of theatre; a form that emerged in the 1960s, known as theatre of the ridiculous, in which often shockingly broad acting styles serve, ironically, to underscore through exaggerated silliness relevant social commentary.
One generally doesn’t read about stage management expertise in a review, but in this production cleverly designed sets and props deftly moved around by the actors in facilitating frequent scene changes and special effects were choreographed with such precision, as opposed to what could have been utter chaos, that they became at times an entertaining part of the show. Among the standout performances under lights on stage were those by Bethany Ditnes as Chris Hargensen, the leader of the female bullying pack, who with Justin Jain as Billy Nolan, schemes to pour pig’s blood over the hapless Carrie, and Jess Conda as Norma, Chris Hargensen’s addled-brained side-kick. Mariel Rosati played Sue Snell, a repentant member of the bullying pack who convinces her would-be prom date, Tommy, to ask Carrie to the prom instead. As Carrie in drag, Erik Ransom does a skillful job of playing to the pathos inherent in the tragic character of Carrie and playing up to frequently outrageous camp humor, with such lines as, “breasts, breasts momma,” when the buxom Carrie misinterprets her mother’s concern regarding the approaching of Tommy’s car on prom night and shouts, “headlights.“
Underlying the antics and over-the-top acting is the ever-present reality that CARRIE is still about a girl who is psychologically abused both at home and at school, and with no one to whom she can turn for help she strikes back in anger with disastrous results for all in her immediate vicinity. BRAT is counting on audiences coming to see this production of CARRIE in the spirit of approaching Halloween who want to have fun with this now classic Stephen King horror story. But this production in all its silliness does not retain any of what was supposed to be scary in the original story. Instead audiences familiar with the original story will find in this production a well-performed humorous version of CARRIE and after the laughter has subsided it is hoped that they will also reflect upon the human side of this story and its parallels with all too frequently appearing news stories of school kids being bullied and responding with profoundly tragic consequences.
by Erik Jackson
Directed by Michael Alltop
October 7 – November 7, 2010
Underground Arts @ the Wolf Building
340 North 12th Street (entrance on Callowhill)
Philadelphia, PA, 19107