Having witnessed his work firsthand, I suspect that James D. Watkins may be a genius of some shape or magnitude. Just try to forget that that endorsement comes from a guy who voted for Mondale and Dukakis, gave Death to Smoochy four stars and genuinely preferred New Coke.
An old-school impresario in the mold of Ziegfeld or Welles — albeit one spared the crippling handicaps of funding or common sense — Watkins came to my attention a few years ago, when he was staging a self-written play about a grown-up Peter Pan (titled The Pan) at an area hotel. His advance materials included some crude drawings of Pan (the Disney version) and a mission statement awash in self-help terminology. I wrote a preview blurb about the show but never got to see it. So when word arrived that Watkins was mounting another production, a "religious murder mystery" titled The Sacrifice, I vowed I wouldn't make the same mistake twice.
The official website (www.phnxproductions.com) promised an R-rated "live performance piece" inspired by the movies Seven, Black Christmas (1974) and Scream. "If you try to scream, you will die," ran the play's tag line. "If you don't scream … you're already dead!!!!!!" I marked my calendar for Saturday, April 29, when three consecutive shows would be performed at the Ambassador Hotel.
It's a motel. Located near the intersection of Colonial Drive and Westmoreland, it also has a dark but roomy lounge, where I was able to sit patiently and watch Amy Fisher being interviewed on Entertainment Tonight while Watkins and company readied themselves for the second of the evening's three performances. It appeared that I was the only paying customer, for this show at least. A poster indicated that the announced ticket price of $10.50 had been reduced to $5.
When I was finally ushered into the Citrus Room — a small ballroom that also hosts weekly meetings of the Prophetic Deliverance International Ministry — the red-carpet treatment really began. Watkins, a charismatic and unfailingly polite gentleman of color, welcomed me to the show, assuring me (twice) that no one would ask me my name. I was introduced to various members of the cast and crew and encouraged to call out if the temperature was not to my liking or any of the actors proved difficult to hear. When I attempted to pay for my ticket, Watkins told me I could hold onto my money and settle up later — but only if I had found the production worth the $5. (Those rules should pertain at all live theater.)
To warm up the room, Watkins ran through the basic concepts and context of the play, explaining that it was a reaction to today's climate of religious extremism. As he spoke, actor Mark Lomey, dressed in a floor-length robe and a mask that resembled the theatrical face of "tragedy," wandered out from the wings, not realizing that the show had begun. A young woman seated to my left giggled as he was led off.
The start of the play proper had actress Nicole Breitfeller reading haltingly from a printed prologue: "When does passion end and madness begins?" she queried. I had barely begun to formulate a theory when Watkins and the rest of his actors launched into a narrative that showed several folks who were guilty of "sinful" behavior being slaughtered by a knife-wielding killer. After each slaying, the deceased's friends would bemoan his or her passing ("From what I've heard of her, she was pretty cool") — and then Luke (Watkins) and Lisa (Iris Santiago), a pair of pious churchgoers, would aver that the sacrificial lamb had gotten his or her just desserts for not being right with God. (Guess where this is headed!)
The obvious fanaticism of the tongue-clucking pair allayed my fears that the play would be on the wrong side of the fundamentalist divide. Other details pointed just as clearly toward the secular: Very early on, an actor let slip an F-bomb, and the aftermath of one murder revealed the sordid detail that the killer had sewn up the victim's vagina. ("You never hear of a woman psycho doing something like that," a survivor offered, attempting to guess the culprit's gender.)
A certain raggedness was apparent. Actors blanked out on their lines, and some stumbled over character names that were still unfamiliar on the first night of a one-night run. But the cast — a cadre of young and mostly very attractive types — did a commendable job of competing with the noise coming from the lobby, where a customer was loudly arguing with the motel manager over the lack of HBO in his room. (This disturbance continued throughout the play's 35-minute running time.)
When the story reached its conclusion, I was again introduced to the performers, one by one. I attempted to applaud heartily for each, but was told this wouldn't be necessary. Watkins apologized for the F-bomb slip, calling it an unplanned ad lib that had taken him by surprise, too. I happily surrendered my five bills. He asked if I needed change. I demurred.
On the way out, I saw that at least five customers were waiting for the next show. (From their conversation, I gleaned that they were relatives of the performers.) An OPD cop was at the front desk, attempting to mediate the customer/manager disagreement. It must have worked, because the irate party was soon gone — and Watkins was nicely asking the manager if the noise level could be kept down for the 9 p.m. performance. Now that's the kind of moxie that takes you places.
Locally, who knows where it'll take Watkins? With the right PR, I bet he could clean up at Fringe — or at least provide a new cult obsession for an audience that can't live on Mark Wayne and Lorna Lambey alone. Is it camp? Is it kitsch? If you have to ask … you're already dead!!!!!!