Photos by Elisabeth Cooper

Essential Theatre’s 21st annual Essential Play Festival is running through Aug. 25 (please see this story for more information). You may recall that the Festival’s mission is to nurture and produce new works by Georgia playwrights.

This year’s co-winners are “Baby Shower for the Antichrist,” by Ben Thorpe, directed by Shannon Eubanks; and “Slaying Holofernes” by Emily McClain. We shall deal with Mr. Thorpe’s play.

“Babyshower” is a horror comedy about a small group of devil-worshipers who are preparing for the birth of the Dark Lord. There is a celebratory Hell’s Feast, in which we witness a power struggle between five women as well as secrets emerging.

The scene is a Southern lake house in a somewhat deserted area. Reba (Suzanne Roush), imperious and a bit scary, seems to be the leader. Dee (Gina Rickicki), if not exactly a sycophant, seems to be Reba’s sidekick, with a bit of a crush on Reba. Dee might even kill for her—but that’s just a passing thought.

Shelley (Taylor Bahin) is sort of a hot mess, as they say. She’s at once kooky and amusing but also startlingly unpredictable in an unsettling way. Just when you think she’s the class clown, she’ll hit you with a really menacing thought or suggestion. Ms. Bahin, however, has a subtle comic gift—the kind of thing you cannot teach. It’s quite rare in the theatre.

Monica (Sarina Montgomery) is the expectant mother, and she seems troubled (understandably) by her pregnancy. How would you feel if you were giving birth to the son of Satan? W. B. Yeats said it best: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?”

Granted, this is a short (75 minutes) play, but it nevertheless brings up memories of Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby,” a masterpiece horror film. Even though “Babyshower for the Antichrist” is not in that league (it’s much shorter and can be amusing), you still think of Ruth Gordon serving Mia Farrow “specially prepared baby’s milk” so that Rosemary will have a “satisfactory” birth.

There’s one more character, and that is Julie (Madison Welch), Monica’s former best friend. She arrives expecting a normal impending birth but quickly surmises that something is rotten in Denmark. When you’re practically tied down to a table for a Hell’s Feast, you’d have to be pretty dim-witted not to think your friend may be in trouble.

There are fun supernatural lights and sounds to keep everyone on their toes, and secrets do emerge: such as discovering that Reba is a recovering (I think) substance abuser who had crashed her car into a church, and two people died. Director Eubanks sets a good pace and keeps it moving.

I think first-time playwright Thorpe has written a provocative piece, and it has enough life in it to survive some tweaking, which he will probably do. For example, he has the option of serving up more horror, even terror; or he could steer his work in a still further comedic vein; or he could keep them both, expanding both. I think the creation of art is a living thing—endlessly fascinating.

As it stands, I would say Mr. Thorpe has written an excellent showcase for five very good actors—and happily, he has found them.

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