By S. Alexander Smith:
The Brazen Faced Varlets live up to their name in this daring take on wicked women. Following last season's Artie nominated "Ladykillers," an exploration of women who kill, the Varlets took on a theme, wrote and mounted the play in two months. Director Lara Haberberger notes she wanted to do more risky work and "Way Wicked Women" meets this goal in every aspect. The staging of the Varlet's show in the back of Rust Belt Books pushes the limits of the small space and gives an intimacy with the audience that is inescapable and occasionally, confrontational. Like "Ladykillers," the show mixes humor, biography, history and archetype to explore women who are, or are perceived to be, wicked by society. This takes us down dark and twisting paths of sex, violence, affection, madness, cannibalism, reproductive freedom, and religious stricture.
The setup is circus or sideshow, lurid posters showing the Lion Tamer, the Snake Charmer, the Tightrope Walker, the Fortune Teller, the Gun Slinger and the Tattooed Lady hang about the stage. The Ringmaster is our guide and carny; hyping each tale in pulpy prose promising sin, depravity and horrors. The individual pieces belie this, with far greater nuance, exploring what it means to be seen as wicked. Some of the wicked women revel in their title, some are cursed with it, and some too young to understand what it is about them that makes the world see them this way. There are hilarious ensemble moments, from an anger management meeting for Disney's female villains, to a game show vying for a chance to dine with Satan. Cannibalism gets its own cooking show, a classic porn star tells her own story without suffering or shame. The rarely seen women of Nazi Germany get their horrifying representation, as do gun molls and femme fatales. The most powerful moments come from letting the women speak for themselves and letting the audience decide if they are wicked or not. In the end, the Ringmaster gets his own reception from the exploited subjects of his sideshow.
Like all new works it has its rawness, but the Varlets make that rawness into something sublime. The performances are expert, with special note going to Kelly Beuth for ranging from comedy to cannibalism to Cleopatra with aplomb. One historical embodiment was enough to churn the audience with dread and make the intimacy become claustrophobic. That is what we go to theater for - to be made uneasy, to think, to confront as well as laugh and be delighted. With the consistently powerful and thought provoking work that the Varlets produce "Way Wicked Women" should be sold out every night.
"Way Wicked Women" runs Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm, Sept. 27- Oct. 13. In the back of Rust Belt Books, 202 Allen St., Buffalo. Tickets are $12 at the door.