ART/WNY Presents HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS AND THEN KILL THEM
From the first moment one walks into American Repertory Theater of WNY's production of Halley Feiffer's "How to Make Friends and Then Kill Them", there is a sense that what will transpire on stage won't be your typical theater presentation.
Audiences are funneled through a red-door set entrance and onto a thrust stage, designed with a curious center "X" to mark the spot, while the minimalistic non-proscenium set features shelves filled with what appears to be playthings (toys in the attic, perhaps?). Director Maura Nolan has set an uneasy tone for what's to come.
What comes next are two young girls sitting on dining room table engaged in a harmless clapping hand game dressed in school uniforms. Although there may be no sense of threat, seeing these girls intensely engaged in this game in matching wear invokes the creepy twin imagery from Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining".
We learn the oldest sister Ada aspires to be a famous actress while her baby sister Sam goggles over her often asking to draw her in hopes of forever capturing this beauty. Innocence abounds in the first few moments of the play as the two act like typical young siblings complete with face-lickings and sock-puppets. But the fun comes to a William Blake screeching halt as Sam crumbles into a fetal position exclaiming "I want to die."
Under any normal family circumstance, older sis would skip along to tell mom or dad that little sister has suicidal thoughts which would most likely be addressed, but not Ada. She merrily steps over her distraught sister telling her she's a freak and try to be happy...like her.
This is where Feiffer begins to create the dysfunctional world of these two sisters.
Their world is one void of the nuclear family with the all-but-too common single-mother upbringing with a twist of alcoholism and abandonment to leave them to their own devices-tales from another broken home.
But for most who grew up in broken-homes, the transition from young children to adulthood has a fair share of therapy, bad relationships, self-destruction, coping issues and other normal modern-day psychological issues . What is compelling about Feiffer's work is she recognizes and identifies a new generation of broken home individuals.
As we see Ada and Sam grow from childhood to adulthood through short vignettes, we also witness the sense of entitlement that accompanies the above mental issues. This is the key difference between them and previous generations who dealt with broken home issues. Feiffer writes characters who feel they've earned the right to misery and to inflict this to anyone around them with sharpness of lines such as "stop asking me to validate you".
The third character component of Feiffer's piece takes the form of a girl who suffers from every modern-day aliment including ADD. Her maladies and the weakness Feiffer creates for the character will make her an easy target for the likes of Ada and Sam. One could easily see this character as an emotional punching bag for the two sisters, but instead, through director Nolan's eyes, we see a Dorrie that has layers and sensitivity which softens our perception of Ada and Sam. She also represents an opportunity for both sisters to have relationships rooted in normalcy. This happens in Feiffer's second act as an unfortunate accident and a self destructive moment brings all three to this pivotal point in the play in which they find themselves ready for this opportunity.
Unfortunately, the moment also leads to the basis of the title of Feiffer's work as one character discovers the extreme length modern-day broken-home dysfunctional folks will go to defend their entitlement to misery.
These interpretations and insights into fictional characters is what makes "How to Make Friends and Then Kill Them" a compelling contemporary theater piece. Feiffer reflects through her characters a 21st century world filled with this new generation of folks from broken homes with outwards harrowing hate and entitlement to shit on anyone in their path who disagrees with them. Need an example? Review the recent 2016 Presidential campaign.
What make this presentation at ART a solid theatrical piece is Maura Nolan's vision to give these characters some humanity and, more importantly, identity. Nolan finds the shards of humor through Feiffer's writing and turns them into likable character moments. She sees the destructive force within the work but instead of going for predictable acting choices, Nolan leaves the stage a complete mess with props to signify the path of ruin these people leave behind. She lays it out for the audience to decide how they want to feel for these characters instead of spoon-feeding them the obvious.
The acting is top-notched. MeLissa Levin portrays Ada in a contagious cute bratty way but balances her character with acting choices reflecting an individual wrought with self-destruction and psychopathic behavior. Sue McCormack gives the younger sister Sam a consistent tone for the character throughout the piece. We always want to like her. We always want to pity her, we want to see she can live a normal life with normal relationships, and that is all on McCormack's presences on stage. Mara Westerling-Morris interpretation of Dorrie creates a likable character throughout this piece. She finds great comic timing with the material and provides enough sensitivity for Dorrie that makes us actually pull for her throughout the piece. Director Maura Nolan has assembled an strong cast adept at pulling off this troubling work.
There are some production trip-ups including long scene changes and odd transitional cues with lights and sound. After the first week, this is a common technical problem that should be resolved by the second week of the production. Hopefully. Apart from this, the focus is always on the strong acting onstage with little to no technical distractions-except a damn moth flying around.
There is a term in theater to describe a production that says "It's an actor's piece" which generally means the work is craft driven and complex. Not for those who seek easy to digest theater. This term will certainly apply to ART's production of Halley Feiffer's "How to Make Friends and Then Kill Them". But if one is looking for something theatrically uncommon and reflective on the contemporary world around them then a trip to the company's funky 330 Amherst Street performance space is in order.
"How To Make Friends and Then Kill Them" runs November 4th through November 19th, Thursday through Saturday. All showtimes at8 pm. Ticket prices are $20 general admission and $15 for students and military veterans. For more information on the production please contact 716-697-0837 or go to www.artofwny.org
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