by Macey Levin
1968, in Fremont, New Hampshire, a band was formed by Austin Wiggin’s three daughters – Dot, Betty and Helen. According to Frank Zappa they were “…better than the Beatles,” while Rolling Stone said they were “…like lobotomized Trapp Family singers.” Their bizarre life is the subject of The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World an off-beat musical which premiered in 2011 and is currently at the Bridge Street Theatre in Catskill, New York.
Austin Wiggins, Jr., believing his mother had supernatural powers, would frequently visit her grave seeking signs of what to do next in life. Stuck in a dead-end job in the local mill, he was searching for a way to end his poverty. He believed she told him to watch the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show and create a band with his three teen-age daughters, none of whom had ever played a musical instrument nor sung in public. He took the family’s savings to purchase two guitars and drums and enrolled them in a home-study program so that they could spend more time rehearsing while being coached by him, though he himself had no musical training. He named this forlorn band The Shaggs. The girls and his wife Annie were victims of his maniacal temper and the tyrannical control of their lives. The effect Austin had on the girls is the core of this show by Joy Gregory and Gunnar Madsen. The three of them, especially Helen, were severely psychologically damaged and their futures compromised.
Fremont, a very small inconsequential town, had limited venues for entertainment, but Austin arranged dates at the town hall on Saturdays for the trio to play for dances and to entertain at the local rest home. They were asked to leave both locations. After cutting a record or two a producer contacted Austin to arrange for the recording of an album to which he immediately agreed. The band’s only album, Philosophy of the World, was released in 1969. Achieving little success, the group disbanded in 1975 after Austin’s death.
This production is somewhat uneven. Five members of the cast (Alexa Powell as Dot, Amara Wilson as Betty, Meeghan Darling as Helen, Magnus Bush and Edward Donahue) are either still in high school or recent graduates. They are obviously multi-talented but their inexperience sometimes rears its head. They are complemented by professional actors Steven Patterson as Austin, Molly Parker Myers as Annie and Julian Broughton.
Patterson is intense as he bounces from anger to manipulation in order to realize his ambitions for the girls. He does not recognize they loath him for the way he is subverting their lives. It is difficult to have empathy for the real-life Austin and Patterson realistically creates the same ugly aura. In the show there is only one scene in which he softens and that is when he needs to wheedle money from Annie. Parker, an accomplished actress and a reliable veteran of several Bridge Street shows, is playing a one-note character – subservient but loving. This is a weakness in the work of the writers. Broughton performs several roles competently.
Powell, Wilson and Darling, the three young actresses, give depth to their characters as they withstand their father’s onslaught. Meeghan Darling’s Helen is the most complex of the three silently accepting Austin’s vituperations but secretly creating an independent life. Young Edward Donahue is convincing as Charley Dreyer, the cunning proprietor of Third World Records. Magnus Bush delivers a sympathetic portrayal of Kyle Nelson who is enamored of Helen. All five are more than credible.
Director John Sowle maintains the pace of the play through myriad set and lighting elements which he also designed. There is a platform that slides in and out carrying the musical instruments and a curtained circular platform which holds a bed and other furnishings. They work satisfactorily as the actors change pieces of furniture, but the platform and the curtain are quite noisy. Lights focus on various parts of the stage leaving other areas dark, lending a grim atmosphere to the show; some of the playing areas though are too shadowy. Sowle’s actors, however, work hard to recreate the angst of the true story.
The music itself is interesting in that it is this side of rock with a jazz overlay. In addition to The Shaggs’ actual songs there are original numbers which move the plot and the characterizations forward. The whole cast sings well, but the younger performers occasionally lack projection both while singing and delivering dialogue. The four piece band located on the audience left side of the house works unobtrusively.
This is the biggest show Bridge Street has produced; despite the flaws it is an affecting and entertaining experience.
The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World , Book by Joy Gregory, Music by Gunnar Madsen, Lyrics by Joy Gregory and Gunnar Madsen, Story by Joy Gregory, Gunnar Madsen and John Langs; Directed and Designed by John Sowle; Musical director: Michelle Storrs; Choreographer: Marcus McGregor; Cast: Steven Patterson (Austin Wiggin) Molly Parker Myers (Annie Wiggin) Alexa Powell (Dorothy “Dot” Wiggin) Amara Wilson (Betty Wiggin) Meeghan Darling (Helen Wiggin) Magnus Bush (Kyle Nelson) Edward Donahue (Charley Dreyer, Bobby Herne) Julian Broughton (Hank, Mr. Wilson, Russ Hamm, Talent Show Host) Costume Design: Michelle Rogers; Sound Engineer: Carmen Borgia; Stage Manager: Joshua Martin; Musicians: Autumn Brennan – bass guitar, Paul Ilsely – guitar, Mike Ragaini – drums, Kristen Tuttman – piano; Running time: 2 hours, fifteen minutes – one intermission; 7/11/19 – 7/21/19; Bridge Street Theatre, Bridge Street, Catskill, NY; bridgestreettheatre.org; 518-943-3818