By Lynn Venhaus
Jennifer Theby-Quinn goes there.
In a raw, emotionally wrenching performance, Theby-Quinn shows her limitless range as fireball Effie, a rough-around-the-edges working-class heroine, in the one-woman show, “Iphigenia in Splott.”
The virtuoso portrayal marks Upstream Theater’s return to producing small provocative works of art after a prolonged period of darkness. Their last effort, “Wildfire,” was presented Jan. 24 – Feb. 9, 2020, in the before times. Then, the public health emergency forced the arts to press pause, and “Iphigenia” was put on hold since 2020. Until now.
This production has had its share of challenges – Omicron outbreak so they limited ticket sales early in the run, Winter Storm Landon hit and they cancelled Bohemian Thursday performance – but they offered a streaming version too (I highly recommend, excellent quality and you do feel like you are there. Details below).
At the Marcelle Theatre in the Grand Arts Center, Theby-Quinn bursts onto a sparse stage, agitated, all attitude and lip. She’s coarse, not having any of what’s going on, and is rather difficult to warm up to with her confrontational style – obviously, having a bad day in her gritty south Wales neighborhood, Splott. It’s 11:30 a.m. and she’s drunk, stumbling around, mad at the world (but, we will soon discover she has good reason).
As she roars, Theby-Quinn intones a well-coached Welsh accent and maintains the pattern for 95 minutes. Effie’s loud and in-your-face, she makes no apologies for drinking and drugging, her leggings are too tight, and her long hair is distinctive – crimped and streaked with red. In Cardiff, one would think locals know not to mess with her.
During the past two years, we’ve witnessed rude tirades in public as we’ve all grappled with a new normal forced on us by a global pandemic. But Effie is no Karen. She’s been marginalized by society, ignored.
As Effie rages, scolding the audience for thinking she’s a “stupid slag, a nasty skank” as if she’s used to insults, we learn things about her that force us to change our first impression.
Playwright Gary Owen sets us up to take a sharp turn, to understand that something horrific has happened to Effie, and she has been forever broken. But is she a victim or survivor, and dare she be an everyday hero?
She’s actually a spin on a tragic warrior princess. The title references ancient Greek myth. Ever hear of Euripedes? He wrote a play, “Iphigenia in Aulis,” which tells the story of King Agamemnon’s decision to sacrifice his daughter for his country. She will be sacrificed to goddess Artemis so that his fleet will have smooth sailing to Troy, for the wind isn’t helping
Owen flips it to mean growth and profit over casualties – as in what is it worth when the cost is better for business overall? We’ve heard this before, but we’ve never heard from an Effie.
On the government doll in a town ravaged from shut downs and employment cuts, she is the embodiment of what communities have lost in the past decade.
Owen grew up in Splott and his 2015 monologue is a protest of UK’s shortcomings. It will leave an audience gutted. This may be an all-too-common case in health care, but it’s still inequitable and sad, and gets us to take notice.
This is when Theby-Quinn turns in a virtuoso performance that few could match on local stages, and she has set a high bar for the rest of the year.
Under Patrick Siler’s direction, Theby-Quinn is put through physically demanding paces on a gut-wrenching journey, using three chairs and a thin blanket to convey different spaces. The sound design is quite effective.
Effie huffs and puffs, as is her way. Then, she settles in to say something. She has a boyfriend Kev, but it’s her encounter with Lee that changed her life. And she wants us to listen.
Because Theby-Quinn is so mesmerizing, she has our undivided attention as she unfolds, in soul-crushing detail, a tale of woe. She will break your heart with her intensity.
When she howls about how she can’t speak and she has no one to speak for her, you feel her pain. Effie’s personal trauma becomes a lightning rod for battling complacency.
One wonders how she can mentally wrestle so deeply like that at every performance and not be affected.
As she explains the damage that’s been done and how she put herself back together, it reminded me of what Vanessa Kirby endured in the 2020 film, “Pieces of a Woman.”
Owen won an award at the Edinburgh Festival for his innovative writing. He forces us to not only care about Effie, but sympathize with her. We hear a lot about the greater good in the vaccine rhetoric these days. In the aftermath of her tragedy and decisions she made, she took one for the team.
It’s Theby-Quinn’s finest work in the past 10 years, since I’ve been reviewing professional regional theater, and I didn’t think she could top her performance as Lucille Frank in R-S Theatrics’ “Parade” in 2013, although she’s been impressive in everything from Shakespeare to farce to musical comedy since.
She has won two St. Louis Theater Circle Awards, for the inaugural year as outstanding leading actress in a musical for portraying Hope Cladwell in “Urinetown” at Stray Dog Theatre in 2012, known then as Jennifer M. Theby, and as outstanding supporting actress in 2016 for the drama “Afflicted: Daughters of Salem,” produced by the Metro Theater Company.
And has been nominated multiple times, including the 2019 musical “Daddy Long-Legs” at Insight Theatre, and recently in comedy, for supporting role in 2020’s “Flanagan’s Wake” at the Playhouse at Westport Playhouse and in a leading role for “Jake’s Women” by Moonstone Theatre Company in 2021. Those awards are to be announced March 28.
Owen wanted us to listen, and Theby-Quinn made that happen.
Note: A streaming option is available through Feb. 7. I saw this as a filmed production. Had I been there in person, I would have been sobbing in an ugly cry.
Upstream’s performances are Jan. 21-23, 27-30, Feb. 3-6, at the Marcelle Theatre, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive – free parking lot across the street. All performances are at 8 p.m. except Sundays – Jan. 23 and 30 are 7 p.m. and Feb. 6 is at 2 p.m.
Proof of vaccination is required. Tickets are available at Metrotix and at the box office before the performance. Box office hotline is: (314) 669-5312.
Upstream collaborated with Blip Blap Video to create a recording of the live performance. This may be accessed for a discounted ticket price of $20 and viewed on demand through Feb. 6 until midnight. For a ticket: https://ticketbud.com/events/a0662266-8129-11ec-852a-42010a717017?fbclid=IwAR01pInMHXQVZAoO4LnIoQsSJ3KF13OjkSW7TDwHM2ks2U0Bl3MJoyEv_4E
For more information, visit https://www.upstreamtheater.org/
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat daily newspaper. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association.