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Most of the audience was on its feet last night after a press date for Adam Rapp’s apocalyptic Ghosts in the Cottonwoods–a reworking of a fifteen-year-old play that feels like it’s offering a new direction for American theatre.  Graphic, visceral, verbal, I’m not sure it could have happened without Sarah Kane’s Blasted (and Sarah Benson’s seminal production of that play at Soho Rep in 2008) or the work of filmmakers Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction) or Peter Greenaway (The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover); there is also an indebtedness to Ionesco, Shepard, and, from the opening sounds of the saxophone, Williams.  It certainly needed the Amoralists (an unaffected, uniformly excellent, downtown theatre company) to get this physical, funny, gross, and naked—literally.  The play itself might be a gothic tale from Flannery O’Connor—a mother (Sarah Lemp), afraid to leave her tiny, rural house waits for her older son (James Kautz) to return from a penitentiary after six years—she lives with her second son (Nick Lawson) who would like to be a rap singer. Other visitors arrive this night, too, as if we’re hearing a Halloween ghost story—a man who has been shot in the leg (William Apps), a young girl (Mandy Nicole Moore), and a second ex-con (Matthew Pilieci). What seems different to me, what takes this out of being a regional story or early Shepard rip-off is the straightforwardness with which it treats its physical and emotional violence—here there are no miked crickets or rain storms, no long pauses to signal that we’re really in a dream or an hallucination. Instead, post 9/11, reality is surreal in the American consciousness, it doesn’t need a metaphor or rationalization.  Tragedy after tragedy, mutilation after death after rape after beheading don’t seem gratuitous, even if one doesn’t agree with such a probe into the human psyche. Whether this will make violence on the American stage acceptable, or as integral a part of its definition as it is for American cinema, remains to be seen;  Ghosts in the Cottonwoods certainly claims that our artistic vocabulary can be broadened.  Rapp’s writing is strong, deeply organic to the characters; the Amoralists, and their playwrights, continue to clear the way for a Theatre beyond entertainment. They want a new one.

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© 2010 by Bob Shuman

Photo: Sarah Lemp (as Bean Scully) takes control of William Apps (as Newton Yardly). Background: Nick Lawson (as Pointer Scully, the son of Bean Scully). Photographer: Annie Parisse.

Ghosts in the Cottonwoods

Venue: Theatre 80 St. Marks, located at 80 St. Marks Place between 1st and 2nd Avenues in NYC.

Phone: 212-388-0388

Amoralists Web site:

Adam Rapp is an Obie-award-winning playwright and director. He is the author of numerous plays, which include Nocturne, Faster, Animals & Plants, Finer Noble Gases (2006 Edinburgh Fringe First Award), Stone Cold Dead Serious, Blackbird, Gompers, Essential Self-Defense, and Red Light Winter (Obie Award), which was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He recently directed the world premiere of The Metal Children, which starred Billy Crudup, at The Vineyard Theatre. Rapp is the author of the novel, The Year Of Endless Sorrows, and the graphic novel, Ball-Peen Hammer. His new novel, The Children And The Wolves, is forthcoming from Candlewick Press. Rapp’s playwriting honors include The Helen Merrill Award, The 2006 Princess Grace Statue, a Lucille Lortel Playwright’s Fellowship, and The Benjamin H. Danks Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He wrote and directed the films Winter Passing and Blackbird. “[Rapp] is a gifted storyteller. He makes demands on his audience, and he rewards its close attention with depth and elegance,” wrote The New Yorker’s John Lahr.

The cast includes William Apps, James Kautz, Nick Lawson, Sarah Lemp, Mandy Nicole Moore and Matthew Pilieci. The design and production team consists of Alfred Schatz (Set Design), Keith Parham (Lighting Design), Jessica Pabst (Costume Design), Eric Shimelonis (Sound Design) and Judy Merrick (Production Stage Manager).

The Amoralists is a theatre company that produces work with no moral judgment, by new and emerging playwrights. Dedicated to an honest expression of the American condition, their actor-driven ensemble explores complex characters of moral ambiguity. They seek to initiate a dialogue between artists and audience, and put theatre at the heart of our community. Rollicking, rebellious and raw, their work will go home with you…Boom!

Critical acclaim for The Amoralists

“This is exciting work, fresh and refreshing: The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side makes you want to follow the Amoralists wherever they go next.” ~ TimeOut NY (4 out of 5 stars)

“The Pied Pipers is fast, funny, raucous and in your face. Considerably smart and complex. I’ll certainly follow The Amoralists work from now on.” ~ The New York Post

“The young company’s deep commitment and contagious exuberance brings to mind the vitality that distinguished the early Off-Off Broadway work of artists like Sam Shepard only a generation ago.” ~ The New Yorker

“Happy In The Poorhouse is a fun ride.” ~ The New York Post

“Invigorating, refreshing and subversively uproarious…an exhilarating emotional ride.” ~ Variety on Pied Pipers

The Amoralists is a critically acclaimed theatre company that was formed in 2006 by actors James Kautz and Matthew Pilieci, and playwright/director Derek Ahonen on a car ride to Las Vegas. With a goal of winning $50,000 to start their company, they lost $5,000 and founded The Amoralists regardless. Through its first four seasons The Amoralists have produced eleven mainstage productions of original work to rave reviews and sold out houses at various venues, including both PS122 and Theatre 80 St. Marks. In the summer of 2009, their play, The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side, ran from June 2 to October 5, extending two times before transferring successfully to an Off Broadway run. The play was included in numerous 2009 Top Ten Lists, including Elisabeth Vincentelli’s in The New York Post and Adam Feldman’s in TimeOut New York. In August 2010 the company remounted, retired and ran in rep their two big hits, The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side and Happy In The Poorhouse, to sold out runs at PS122. All Amoralists plays by resident playwright Derek Ahonen are published by Playscripts, Inc. For performance rights and to read a free sample of the scripts go to

Poster Cottonwoods-fe[1] (2) 
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