“I lost the best actress award to Lynn Redgrave, which is awesome!” says Madi Distefano, of her 2004 Barrymore Award nomination for Popsicle’s Departure, 1989. That show was also nominated for outstanding new play at that year’s Barrymores, but got even greater plaudits when it moved to the Edinburgh Fringe: best solo show.
Madi, the founder and artistic director of Brat Productions, described her one-woman show better than I ever could, when we spoke last week: ” Popsicle Departure 1989 is a tall tale shaggy dog monologue about a 19-year-old punk rock chick who lives in a warehouse and has a lame temp job and a crystal meth problem. Her boyfriend is a slacker guitarist South Boston boy. It goes back and forth between the two of them and they’re headed towards collision; she’s planning something, he’s planning something else, and a train wreck kind of thing ensues.”
“It’s beautiful,” says Jess Conda, who’s stage-managed numerous productions of the show. “I’ve done that show with Madi at least five or six times—all the Philly mounts, a run in New York City, the run in Edinburgh that won all the awards, and a run with her in Glascow. I probably have it memorized too.”
Jess, who is now the assistant artistic director of Brat, will be a bit distracted from Madi’s remount of Popsicle at this year’s Philly Fringe. Paired with Popsicle is Jess’s first original show, Eternal Glamnation, and together, they are known as Brat RockPile. Previews done, they take the stage in full RAWK mode tomorrow, and for he rest of Philly Fringe. Be forewarned: the RockPile description reads, “CAUTION: THESE SHOWS FEATURE SEX, DRUGS, FLESH, STROBE LIGHTS, LOUD ROCK, PROFANITY, AND ALIEN ABDUCTIONS.” And so it goes in the Eraserhood.
After the jump: two brats are better than one. And GWAR!!!
So why remount Popsicle now?
“Because it’s a great story, and I love telling it, and a lot of people have asked to see it sometime, and we’re mounting this show Eternal Glamnation that’s all about spectacle and has five million things going on, and thought it would be great to pair with something that’s got nothing except a person on stage telling a story,” Madi says.
Eternal Glamnation promises a bit more noise, and Madi is amped.
“I am so fucking excited. We’re taking over the whole cabaret bar, people will be performing behind a bar, back by a ladder, they have lighting here b/c they do music shows, so we get to play with all their moving lights that change colors, and rock out. We’re trying to get our hands on lasers and fog machines. It’s trippy—almost like we’re doing a rock concert in the middle of a rave. We’re throwing a party. It’s so much fun,” Madi says.
Jess’s show emerged from a residency she did with Brat last year, a place where her aesthetic has found a lasting home.
“I did a cabaret series that was all rock music based instead of traditional cabaret music—ear-splittingly loud guitars that were in the format of a cabaret. They were like workshops that ended up being pretty great concerts with good production values for workshops,” says Jess.
“I really wanted to do music this whole time—I’m too music theater for rock-and-roll and too rock-and-roll for musical theater. I want to sing, but I’m not getting cast in traditional musical theater, and don’t have a band, so I wanted to make something that’s a little bit of both. I want music in my artistic world,” she says.
At Brat, the rock and punk aesthetics permeate not only the style of their shows, but also their telos.
“I used to front a rock band,” Madi says. “I went on tour with GWAR for a hot minute in 1989, and I was very much into the punk rock scene, and was interested in underground punk rock performance stuff. I wetn tback to college at Temple and was studying theater, then was pregnant with my daughter as an undergrad at Temple. Decided to focus on theater and quit fronting the band. I mean, GWAR is basically rock and roll theater.”
“I just started doing my own fun stuff, and brought the rock aesthetic to theater so it could be cheap accessible and performing at bars and venues and places people were already accustomed to going to,” Madi says.
One of those places was Fergie’s pub, where she directed a number of Conor McPherson’s monologues.
“His stuff was about these badass boys in Dublin,” she says, but during her McPherson festival, “I was frustrated that there were no women.” Popsicle, she says, was set out in a style that mimics McPherson’s, and tries to correct for the ways that women don’t often appear in those kinds of stories, even though they’re there in real life.
“Women go through that too, through their own coming of age, where they’re trying to find themselves, trying on different personalities, and they’re out of control. It’s set in Boston in 1989, in the hardcore scene,” a scene that Madi knew well herself. “It was a private underground world. The rest of the world didn’t know about it, or so we thought.”
Then Nirvana’s Bleach album came out, transforming the music world and shining the light on what previously felt not just secret, but closely held.
“I sort of changed my life anyway,” says Madi. “When I moved to Philly and went back to college, I gave that up a little bit. I did feel a little betrayed, by bands selling out. From an adult perspective, I find that a little silly now. It’s so self-important! These characters [in Popsicle] are very naïve and self-important.”
In Eternal Glamnation, self-exploration, rather than self-importance, is at stake. Featuring what Jess calls a typical 1950s nuclear family of a mother, father, son, and daughter, all searching for identities beyond those which confine them at the start of the show.
“Something happens where the father goes away to fly in a plane or spaceship, it doesn’t matter which. He dies, but is really kidnapped by aliens in space, and that changes him. Mom grieving, that changes her. Their son is in love with a man; the daughter wants to rebel. It’s an evolution that’s maybe similar in any family anytime, but told through the lens of these glam rock songs. There are no words of dialogue, it just goes from song to song to song, and the lyrics are the narrative. It’s a loose narrative; the images are suggestive. You get the storyline, but with holes in it you can fill in,” Jess says, as you imagine your way through the evolution of each character.
The shows take place at Underground Arts, about which Madi and Jess are nothing short of effusive.
“Obviously it’s a rock club, which is a match. It’s the same kind of vibe and aesthetic we have, and their staff is unbelievably awesome. They’re these roadies who’ve been in the biz forever. I don’t know who they are, but we need tables, and tables appear. We don’t want for anything audio-wise, tech-wise. Underground Arts has a bar, too, which is perfect for that relaxed party rock show thing we do so well,” says Jess.
“People here are awesome,” Madi says. “They’re excited about the art—it’s so much fun being here, people are running around, hanging lights, stocking the beer cooler, trying to figure out how to do everything. The mood is great. I expected people would be stressed out and edgy two days before the festival opens, and instead, people are like ‘cool, we’ll get done what we’ll get done.’ It’s a Fringe attitude—we’ll do what we can do, and people will go see it.”
And so you should.
Brat RockPile: Popsicle’s Departure, 1989 & Eternal Glamnation continues its run September 15, 17, 19-22, 25 and 26 at Underground Arts, 1200 Callowhill Street. Times vary, $15 to $35 for both shows.