Kittens in a Cage at Annex Theatre

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Francesca Mondelli in Annex Theater’s ‘Kittens In A Cage

[/media-credit] We’ll get to the vagina jokes, the lesbian obsessions, the greaser language, and the revealing costumes. These elements of Kelleen Conway Blanchard’s Kittens in a Cage, while varyingly successful in flagging attention, are not the soul of the play. Kittens at its core (and at its best) is a fish-out-of-water story, that of Junie Butler (Francesca Mondelli), a sweet, compassionate, trusting petty criminal imprisoned with axe murderers, arsonists, and cannibals. She’s in over her head. The racy humor of the exploitation comedy succeeds to the extent that it retains this focus, providing somewhere for gags to land.

Junie’s been set up by her so-called friends, tricked into taking the fall for a bank robbery. So the circumstances that lead to her detention spring not from criminal compulsions, but from a marriage of boredom and naivety. To put it another way, what lands Junie behinds bars is her inability to protect her good heart from those who would exploit it.

The show begins with Junie’s courtroom/interrogation room testimonies, our heroin facing a barrage of questions about the crimes for which she’s being charged. This watches as a means of establishing a great deal of expositional information at the barrelhead, which might distract if not for the playwright’s beguiling handle on a tricky vernacular and the actor’s power to play with it. The opening scene is my favorite of the production at large, which is unusual. Why is that?

In prison, as as a free woman, Junie is circled by sharks. Did she learn from the follies that landed her in this unenviable predicament? How will she implement this knowledge? Can Junie’s cutie-pie countenance and everything-is-peaches attitude serve as assets of survival?

It’s astounding how thoroughly and immediately Junie’s schtick softens the hearts of the hardened criminals of Marquetta State Prison, as she is doted on (and in some cases lusted after) by almost every character she encounters. If things begin to turn sour, Junie applies the diverting balm of a darling song on ukulele, or she may issue a cheerful compliment, thus restoring a precarious peace. Her tactics are efficacious, in fact too much so.

Real trouble doesn’t begin to unfold for Junie until she is too-wanted by too many parties, and so becomes the rope in a who-are-you-going-to-sleep-with (belong-to) tug-o’-war. Junie’s own desires fall on a woman of doubtable character, further complicating the carnal game of chess. To put a point on the subject, Kittens is largely comprised of tongue-in-cheek lesbian episodes.

Amid all of this, the villainous, one-handed Prison Matron (Lisa Viertel) works diligently on her project of permanently “fixing” the inmates. Her methods of reformation would be considered torture by most, yet she espouses (and seems to believe) that they are steps toward scientific solutions to problems of moral destitution: she experiments on prisoners’ brains. When Junie’s de-facto sweetheart falls victim to the Matron’s handiwork it becomes evident that incarceration is no longer merely a stage for a series of bawdy encounters, but a place in which real harm is no longer possible, but imminent. A fire is lit under the lovebirds, and something finally must be done about their situation.

My problems with the script are several. The foremost is that once Junie finally arrives at an empowerment for decisive action we are promptly denied it. Rather we are shown a talent show, handed a deus ex machina, and ushered to a tidy conclusion in which the would-be climax of the play is vaguely described in past tense. Kittens settles with a dramatically languid follow-through, which betrays its many admirable qualities.

Through my various encounters with the oeuvre of Conway Blanchard–she’s been published on The Seattle Star; I recently wrote a review of her short play, Amphrite–I’ve noticed a passion and a knack for language and a predilection for dramatic lightness. On that note, Sarah Ruhl states that lightness is, “a philosophical and aesthetic viewpoint, deeply serious, and has a kind of wisdom—stepping back to be able to laugh at horrible things even as you’re experiencing them.” My overarching feelings on Kittens is that it completes half of the motion, establishing an aesthetic lightness but not ultimately fortifying it with a substantive–even if also light–philosophical core. Comedy is serious business, and the “don’t be too critical, it’s just fun” song neglects to hold the comedian accountable to the capacities of her form. The best comedies approach the medium as a means of arriving at a greater truth, more than joking and caricaturing, leaning on crutches of style or reference. Neither parody nor farce are barren of potential for the kind of conceptual cogency that effects thoughts beneath, through, or after laughter. There’s a line between comedy and clowning.

The monologue at the top of Kittens is my favorite moment of the show. It portrays a woman wrought with internal and external conflict, taken advantage of, stuck in the lurch and scrambling to fox her way out. What a compelling premise! It’s funny, it’s serious, it’s stylistic–a three-pronged potency the back half of the narrative wants for.

Even if the characters of Kittens don’t resonate on the page they are portrayed with vigor and ability. The performances of the actors do a lot of work for the quality of the production, and are rivaled only perhaps by Conway Blanchard’s way with with music of words. More so than the charms of rambunctious spectacle, these are the elements I most responded to.

In her opening night introduction to Kittens in a Cage the Artistic Director of Annex Theatre, Pamala Mijatov, referenced a recent article by the publisher of The Seattle Star, Omar Willey, paraphrasing his statement that, “Emerging artists are not what give Seattle its identity. Institutions are not what give Seattle its liveliness. These are qualities that only the mid-career artist can bring to the community. They are the artists who hold together the social structure of the arts community.” With Annex’s 25-year history and myriad claims to good work done, they deserve a particular regard from Seattle’s fringe theatre crowd, which they’ve participated in, nurtured, and served. But with Annex’s assertion of this distinction it implies an onus and eagerness to lead by example and inform.

This is in large part why it perturbs me for Kittens to lean so considerably on the novelty of exploitation, which I continue to hear and read is a subversive road to empowerment. That’s a compelling thesis I would love to learn from. Yet through the bandying I haven’t heard an informative explanation for how Kittens accomplishes such a clever trick in a meaningful way. An all-female cast isn’t enough to substantiate the banner. If this is meant to be the philosophical spine I’m missing, I’m still missing it.

At the end of the day Kittens does what it’s trying to do very well. In return, positive reviews have been raining on it. But I don’t believe the conversation should end there. It’s a vexing phenomenon that such adulation should so disproportionately pour on that which is ludicrously self-aware of its ludicrousness. The tags “exploitation,” “parody,” “farce,” “romp,” “rollick” and “comedy” should not provide or even imply lowered bars of expectation. The notion would suggest a lack of creative fervor on behalf of artists, which would be a disheartening state of affairs. I’m not saying everything needs to be serious or that people shouldn’t enjoy laughter. By no means. But I’m decreasingly dazzled by the luster of just-go-with-it fun. Seattle is over-saturated with that kind of fun. Returns on that kind of fun show a trend of diminishing. We need our leaders, like Annex, to continue to remind us of what good work, without qualification, once in a while without a wink, looks like.

Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m., through August 25 // Additional performance Monday at 8:00 p.m., August 13. // Annex Theatre, 1122 East Pike Street // $15 general; $10 TPS, senior, military; $5 student; Thursdays PWYC // Tickets available here