“No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness.”
In AMP, now playing at HERE Theater, playwright performer Jody Christopherson forges a curious and vital bond between two women separated by 100 years. The first is Mary Shelley, she whose imagination birthed Frankenstein, the classic science fiction horror, on a bet in a Geneva cottage. The second is Anna, once an aspiring cellist, now confined to an asylum outside of Boston. The two don’t appear to have much in common at first, but common truths begin to emerge as the play moves forward.
While Mary stalks the stage assembling pieces of the story of her childhood as the precocious daughter of early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and philosopher William Godwin, of her abuse at the hands of her father’s second wife, and of her love affair with and marriage to poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, Anna remains locked on film. Her story is that of an unraveling, with intercut segments describing her removal from recess after an incident with another student—possibly and accident, possibly not—and dropped her in the school orchestra.
“No human being is born a monster, something has happened to turn this innocent child into a frightening adult.”
In both biographies, childhood talents are only just blooming when the girls fall victim to adults who deny them praise and applause, who could nurture their skills but instead choose to tear them down. The play’s title, AMP, can be read in two ways. The first is the scientific term for electric current. The second is a take on Mary Shelley’s most famous work, which features the subtitle “The Modern Promethues.”
In the Greek myth, Prometheus gives humanity fire, and is punished for the deed by being chained to a mountaintop to daily have his liver eaten out by an eagle without dying. Every night the organ regenerates for the following day’s torture. The similarity to his plight and these two women’s is that they were all set up for failure. They are all given the tools for success and then denied that success by the very people who insisted they take up the tools in the first place. That rejection or gaslighting, rightly, infuriates them. To be true to themselves, they have to break their chains and disappear into the ether.
Christopherson is a captivating performer. As Mary she exudes radiance that has nothing to do with the lightning and “laudanum.” Her cheeks are flush, her excitement palpable. As Anna, she is morose and sinister. Listening to her story, she doesn’t seem as honest and true Mary, as if there are a hundred details she refuses to admit. Yet she remains sympathetic, because like Mary and like so many women, her story doesn’t sound strange. It sounds familiar to the extreme to any woman who has been held back or told to stop being unladylike, that her interests aren’t becoming of a lady.
The stage setting is simple but very effective, a light fog hanging over all that catches the lights in ways that make it alternately hazy, dreamy, stormy. Christopherson has spliced pieces of her subjects’ work into her own, and we hear their voices cutting in to have their say every now and then. The technical skill necessary of sound designer Martha Goode to make it come together so seamlessly is incredibly impressive. Special kudos also go to director Isaac Byrne for making the video segments so genuinely, incredibly chilling.
AMP is a moving piece, with shocking moments that make it a truly visceral experience. It’s also worth experiencing as a feminist piece, of which the Marys—Wollstonecraft and Shelley—would have undoubtedly approved.
Photos by Hunter Canning
Written and Performed by Jody Christopherson
Directed by Isaac Byrne
Playing at HERE Theater in a limited run through December 19, 2017
Erika Phoebus’s Kiss It, Make It Better is a very good play. It’s also a difficult play to watch. What makes it so difficult is that it’s a kind of teenage coming-of-age story that’s becoming far too typical. Boy with some sort of psychological issue (ADD? Asperger’s? It is unclear.) meets girl who, at age 16, is raped by someone she trusted. Considering recent studies stating that one in every four girls will be sexually assaulted, this is as timely as it gets.
Teens have a raw deal. Their bodies are doing strange things and their emotions are constantly dialed up to 11. Every good thing that happens feels amazing; every misstep like the end of the world. That’s not because it is; in hindsight we all know how over-reactive we were as teens. What we have now that we lacked then was context, and that makes all the difference. Go through enough trials and tribulation and you can begin to make sense of things and see them to scale.
What is a person in this fragile teenage state to do, though, when something truly terrible happens? In Kiss It, the two not-quite children, not-quite adults try to make sense of their experience in the only way they know how: together.
When their story begins, Nadia (Phoebus herself) and Ty (Brian Miskell) are seven years old. They play among the beams of an abandoned roller coaster and talk about how mommies kiss bumps and bruises to make them better. They even share a first kiss. Later we see them with the babysitter, Bradley (Chris Cornwell), who plays his guitar while she leans against his knee in puppy-like adoration.
Soon the story jumps ahead nine years. Though they still like to climb on the coaster, Nadia is, like every teen, conscious of her physical presence. Ty is the neighborhood dealer. There’s tension between them that wasn’t there before — about her disapproval of his drug habit and his uneasiness about her sexuality — but it’s broken when Ty tells Nadia that Bradley has come back to town.
First crushes die hard. Nadia flirts with Bradley. Bradley responds to the woman she has become. Ty begrudgingly sells Bradley drugs that get him and Nadia high as kites before Bradley goes too far. After a heated moment, a brief action some might say, Nadia is left traumatized, bright blood trickling down her thigh as Bradley buckles up his belt and walks away. The rest unfolds in the aftermath.
What makes Phoebus’s play both impressive and difficult to watch at points is how true it stays to the characters. They’re both incredibly mercurial, as teens are wont to be, and ride emotional roller coasters wilder than any they try to build their home on. Also, the dialogue between the two teens sounds like real dialogue between real teens, full of half-spoken thoughts, never minds, and irritated huffs, bearing a distinct lack of specificity or clarity. It’s exasperating watching them sink deeper into their shared fantasy while trying to wrestle their inner demons.
She’s traumatized but at the same time feels embarrassed and ashamed, as so many women do who are victims of sexual assault. He’s got a legitimate problem with drugs and alcohol. These are grown-up issues and it’s incredibly frustrating witnessing the disaster of these young people thinking they can handle them as islands unto themselves, again, as teens often think they can.
While the script is accurate almost to a fault in regard to its treatment of the main characters, there are some gaps that left me scratching my head. For example, the fact that two kids could go missing for weeks with no one searching for them, all while they’re just camped out at the same place they have always gone, seemed unlikely.
Also, Nadia’s mama, played by Amy Higgs, is an uneven character. She’s very uptight as the mother of a seven-year-old, telling her daughter’s best friend she doesn’t want his chaos infecting her daughter, but then, after the time jump, is suddenly primping and giggling for the boy she used to pay to watch said seven-year-old. She overreacts to the little things and under-reacts to the big ones, like when she doesn’t try to follow Ty to see where he’s taking Nadia’s things or call the police to find her girl.
Mama gets an oddly spectral flashback to her own youthful affair with a man who loved her and left her, with Nadia germinating it is intimated, but that setup feels a little heavy-handed. If anything, being a woman who was taken advantage of by an older man should have made her open to seeing what was going on with her daughter, which she doesn’t acknowledge.
Director Isaac Byrne and Designer Joshua Rose have done something very interesting things with the way the play looks. The set is a study in black and white, with a moving and transforming three-piece structure standing in for roller coaster and home. The first act requires the set to move all at once, which can make things a bit clunky between scenes, but when divided, the action flows at a much quicker, cleaner pace.
The whole thing looks like a massive puzzle, but there must be tricks to getting in and out as Higgs seemed to disappear into thin air during one scene change. There are some striking lighting notes as well, including one that stands out especially in which the house is outlined in crisp white lines.
The play’s final scene takes place another leap into the future, though how long it’s hard to say. In truth, I feel there would have been just as much punch, if not more, had that last scene been excluded. It eliminates any doubt about how the choices Nadia and Ty made affect their lives, but sometimes dénouement isn’t all that necessary. Still, the play delivers some clever insight and tackles subjects that are uncomfortable but important to understand. The more who do, the more they make it better.
Photos by Yvonne Alloway
Kiss It, Make It Better
Playing through June 18, 2016
New Ohio Theatre
154 Christopher Street
New York, New York