Saturday night brought me to the upstairs at Plays and Players Theatre on Delancey Street to see the inaugural Fringe Festival effort from The Burn Ward Theater Company.
Burn Ward presented three one acts – two brief scenes, and one more substantial play. The scenes were well-acted distractions, and the play – Mittens Descending – was an utterly hilarious farce. I wish I could go back and see it again.
Mittens is named for an anthropomorphized, caustic, middle-aged, gin-swilling cat with an eye for mischief and an encyclopedic appreciation of classical music. He’s the debatably imaginary best friend of Lenny, who we first meet as a Batman-loving seven-year-old frustrated by the Barbies and make-believe of his little-girl neighbor, Rebecca.
Lenny and Mittens are an inseparable team when on adventures battling pirates and nightmare kings, but in the real world Mittens is more high maintenance than any friend or pet should be. He demands constant attention and obedience from his young charge, but in exchange offers only capricious, catty companionship. When the two have a brief falling out over Lenny’s weak streak for anarchy Mittens leaves in a huff, en route to other unspecified mischief.
We are then reintroduced to Lenny, now an angsty teen who hasn’t heard from Mittens in years. A breakup with his now-girlfriend Rebecca leaves Lenny’s life spinning out of control, which is compounded by the misguided efforts of his laughably inept therapist. After a disappointing visit to Dr. Goldstein’s office Lenny has hit rock bottom, and it’s at this moment that Mittens makes an ignoble return to wreak havoc on Lenny’s life.
From there the play escalates to a life-and-death struggle between Lenny’s actual responsibilities and the fey, narcissistic logic of Mittens, now on his eighth life and looking to relive past glories.
As a character Mittens reminded me perversely of Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer – a whimsical-yet-toxic antagonist so well-played that you hope he will show up in every scene. Rachel Gluck crosses gender (and species) to inject understated panache and a throaty purr into a role she originated at Drexel University. Bedecked in elaborate face paint, a shabby jacket, and tufted ears poking through her hat, she’s as much the charming Harvey as the chilling Frank of Donnie Darko.
Though the plot’s trajectory grows increasingly dire the script is full of humor, and not just from Mittens. Lenny is an amusingly thorough failure at everything from convincing his girlfriend why she shouldn’t leave him to writing songs for his ridiculous vampire rock band. And, while Lenny’s life is a black comedy, his visits to Dr. Goldstein are wry verging on slapstick. The doctor is a misplaced beach bum who will do anything to get his patients to leave him alone, offering kumbayas along with fistfuls of Wellbutrin.
Despite being a group of recent college grads who still throw keggers as fundraisers, Burn Ward’s presentation was all-pro. Fringe too often acts as an excuse for aimless efforts by groups that are more interested in making a statement (or a complete absence of one) than entertaining an audience. Mittens was the opposite – no ulterior motives, just entertainment in the form of a snappy piece of pop-culture still pervasively weird enough to be at home at the Fringe Festival.
While I expected better than amateur from a group of theatre junkies, I was honestly floored by the quality of the production. The acting was universally strong and clearly well-directed, even in the brief scenes that preceding Mittens. The entire ensemble was adept and entertaining, especially Mark Maher as Lenny.
Mr. Maher was so in-the-moment as a rambunctious kid and an over-medicated teenager that our fourth wall into his world was completely transparent. His major failings and minor successes were all-the-more resonant for watching someone actually be an angsty teen instead of just miming along to the archetype of one. His grounded performance made Mittens seem all the more real.
The upstairs at Plays and Players isn’t the kindest or roomiest space – more like a stuffy attic than a theatre. Burn Ward technical director Brian Browne made the best of it with a revolving stage that allowed Lenny to climb out of his window directly into his Rebecca’s room in real time, once even continuing conversation from one scene to the next.
The Burn Ward Theater Company is barely a year old but they have already figured out the formula for a successful show. Their biggest misstep was in choosing a venue with too-few seats; each of four Mittens performances was a sellout!
While other Fringe companies pack their bags and hibernate until next September, Burn Ward will continue to fundraise and perform throughout the year. Keep an eye on the company’s website or their FaceBook page for info on upcoming shows.
Disclosure: Burn Ward was founded by Drexel grads, but I was never in a school production with any of them (though I later starred in show with Mr. Browne). However, I am good friends with one of the founders; she did not act in or direct this show.
I don’t think our relationship influenced my opinion, as I honestly had no idea of what to expect, and harbored a fear that it would be either painfully dreadful or dreadfully painful. Similarly, she seemed to be terrified that I would hate the show.
Happily, neither outcome proved true.