Five of Ithaca's homegrown theater folk have recently left the nest to several rounds of voracious applause: their self-produced ensemble drama Oatmeal and a Cigarette was selected for the Cincinnati Fringe Festival, where it was staged in early June. In addition to generating buzz and receiving rave reviews in local papers, the play also walked away with an important victory-the Critics Pick award, which names the favorite of almost 40 productions that were staged at the festival.
The play was also selected to be in the New York City International Fringe Festival, the largest festival of its kind with up to 200 productions, and the crew will soon head to Manhattan to perform the show for five more nights in mid-August. But first, a party here at home: Felicia's will host an Oatmeal and a Cigarette fundraiser on Monday, Aug. 4, from 6 to 11 pm, featuring the music of Jen Cork, drink specials, and a Fringey-oke session in which the crew will sing requested songs for nominal donations, in order to help the ensemble raise the necessary resources to get them there and back.
The plot is simple, the cast small, and the concept weird, dark, and refreshingly original: 30-year-old Billy, played by Daniel Kiely, is heavy-set, bearded, and dreadlocked, has never left the apartment, and thinks he's three years old. Nearly hypnotized into submission by "Mommy" Clair, played by Karl Gregory, his older brother who has "raised" him since infancy, Billy wears diapers, plays with trucks, sleeps in a crib, and wears a onesie with a trap door on his behind. Mommy Clair changes Billy, sings to him, tells him frightening distortions of what "outside" is like, and of course, feeds him oatmeal.
The source of trauma that led to this bizarre scenario is alluded to early on, and its suggested revelation is part of the dramatic tension that pulls the audience through scenes that are simultaneously sweet, humorous, and harrowing. Of course, the other significant source of tension comes from the collision of the outside, objective world with the interior, delusional one, in the form of the third character, Babysitter Jane, played by Madeline Maher, who has hung on caring for Billy for more than a year at the start of the play, and who is four days away from finishing her thesis project-of which Billy is the subject.
After Mommy Clair has gone to work, and before setting up her camera to tape her gentle interrogations of Billy as she tries to unearth the trauma of his past, Babysitter Jane smokes cigarettes out the window, thus giving away the rest of the name of the play: just as these two symbolic and strangely paired objects are juxtaposed in the title, so too are the motives of the two characters who pull at each other, and at Billy, in scene after scene throughout the script.
The depth of the psychological drama, as well as how much is at risk for each character, provides plenty of rich material for dialogue and interplay, as the characters grapple with their motives, drives, desires, and fears. Since the entire play takes place in the living room of Mommy Clair and Billy, the audience is positioned in the tantalizing but sometimes uncomfortable role of the voyeur, privy to family secrets, pain and shame. Since Billy is in nearly every scene and knows things about Mommy Clair and Babysitter Jane that they don't know about each other, he is, oddly enough in his innocence, as omniscient as the audience, who gets to watch him slowly, and at times heart-breakingly, putting together the pieces of his situation.
Written by George Sapio and directed by Melissa Thompson, all five members of the ensemble have roots and history in local theater. Thompson was resident production stage manager at the Kitchen Theatre for three years, and has also done stage managing for Cornell and technical directing for Keuka College. Sapio, who has previously worked with Kiely and said he always wanted to work with Gregory, has been commissioned by the Kitchen Theatre and founded three local theatre groups: Wolf's Mouth Theatre Collective, the Brobdingnagian Players and Bad Dog! Productions.
Although Kiely and Gregory are both regular actors at the Kitchen Theatre, the origins of Oatmeal and a Cigarette actually emerged from their comic dissatisfaction at never being cast in a show together. As legend has it, they shared a bottle of Jameson one night and brainstormed on writing a play they could star in together, and emerged from the night with one image: Gregory sucking on Kiely's imaginary breast.
It took the collaboration of their other team members to turn that tableau into a successful drama, however, and all of the members claim some role in the development of the play from conception to final production. (As Thompson put it, "I wasn't sure I wanted to direct the 'big man in a diaper' show, because that's really easy to do badly.")
Throughout the writing of the play, Sapio workshopped it scene by scene with Maher, Thompson, Gregory and Kiely. "They're all pretty sharp and they know their business," Sapio said. "They gave me an awful lot of help when it came to shaping the play, forming it, and figuring out which direction it should go in. They pushed me in ways that I would not have gone myself, but which turned out to be wonderful."
In the Cincinnati press, writers and critics commended the production for its eloquence and vision. A CityBeat review by Jane Durrell pointed out that while the premise is open to cheap laughs, "the script and the cast sidestep temptation." A viewer comment said the show had "very real and complex views of social 'norms,' and most of all, it made me think." And in The Conveyor, Jennifer Davis says that Thompson has "staged a beautiful, haunting dark comedy," and that Kiely's performance is "nothing short of genius."
Sapio said he had heard the play likened to theater of the absurd, but said he disagreed with that assessment: "I have no problem with shock, or including a shocking event," he said, "but I'd rather bring the audience to a place where they have to rethink their ethics and morals, by a natural progression of incidents. I try to take a natural thing and turn it on its ear, to present it to people in a way they haven't thought about before. People find it shocking-to me it makes perfect sense."