A sadomasochistic, genderfluid Queen named Gregory; barf made out of Skittles; and casual references to benzodiazepines: finally, a fairy tale we can all relate to. The Coward is the latest invention of Maddy Campbell, an NYU Tisch alum who both wrote and stars in the play, which premiered at the historic East Village performance venue WOW Café Theatre on April 30. Directed by co-actor Matt Phillips, and produced by Wednesday Derrico and Experimental Bitch Presents, The Coward stands as an over-the-top, in-your-face revision of what modern fairy tales can and should be.
It goes like this: A wimpy, emasculated yet kind King, played by Wester Cooley, is chained to his chair. He once thought handing his dominion to the unhinged Queen Gregory would bring about peace. Instead, the despot dopes the masses by putting benzos in their water and hosting incessant raves. The kingdom's subjects are unquestioning and hedonistic to their cores. Hope comes in the form of Willie: a sweet, deferring girl who serves as the King’s pseudo-love interest )and similarly neutered companion). She suffers abuse at the hands of Queen Gregory—she literally gets spit on in the play—and questions what life might be like outside of the grotesque dictatorship. The King’s bond with Willie is weakening, though, so he offers shackles beside him as a sign of affection. Something in Willie snaps, and the play gets rolling.
The crux of the play is Willie’s inner dilemma, which manifests as a sort of multiple personality disorder. She alternates between her inner monster, who advocates for murdering people, talking smack, and acting out, and her conscience, the Willie people seem to know and love. She at once yearns for the comforts of domestication, and the peaceful complacency offered by a life shared in shackles with the King. But she also detests his attempts to contain her, and she knows there's more to life than being his long-term plaything.
Each character is larger than life, as are their actions. There are water guns, confetti, kiddie pools, and stage blood aplenty. While the production elements are campy, they aren’t gimmicky. Each prop is playful but essential, lending the play the visual sensation of a Technicolor cartoon. Willie thrashes about with disheveled hair and bloodstained hands, inching with every violence towards a less soul-crushing existence. The garishly dressed Bunny, played by Nikomeh Anderson, prances around in wedged pleather boots, an apron, and unfailing smile; Evil Queen Gregory, played by Matt Phillips, sports the ultimate DIY dominatrix gear; a stern-faced Crow, played by Anna Cain Bianco, is the play’s omnipotent and foreboding soothsayer; and a simpleton, played by James Clements, amuses in overly-baggy sweaters and droopy eyes.
With the fabulous Matt Phillips as Queen Gregory, a prostrate and lame King, and a protagonist in the apparent midsts of mental illness, The Coward marks a modern moment; gender lines are blurred irreversibly, mental health and its treatments are on the tips of our tongues, and lead actresses need no longer look like Barbies. Willie, with her short pixie cut and complexities, suggests a new type of hero has come to town: the realized woman.
Catch The Coward at The New York International Fringe Festival (FringeNYC) from August 12 - 28, 2016. Official dates and locations are to be announced this July.