The original cast of 'Kittens in a Cage' at Annex Theatre. Tracy Leigh (seated, stroking baton) and Lisa Viertel (dressed in black) are among the original cast members returning for readings on 8/26-27. Photo courtesy of Annex Theatre.

Shanked in the Shower: The Caged ‘Kittens’ Are Back

The original cast returns to Annex for two nights this week, for a reading of Kelleen Conway Blanchard’s hit Kittens in a Cage — and its new sequel. It’s a two-show fundraiser for Annex Theatre. 

 

Seven years after the play premiered, its poster is still first to greet you after tackling the stairs at Capitol Hill’s Annex Theatre.

Since then, Kittens in a Cage — Kelleen Conway Blanchard’s fantastical story of shiv-toting jailhouse sweethearts, at once comical and shocking — has maintained something of legendary status.

The original poster for ‘Kittens in a Cage’, designed by Ellen Forney. Courtesy of Annex Theatre.

No doubt its lasting power is due partly to its readily available film version — it was adapted into a web series and viewable on Amazon Prime before moving to other channels (browse them at the film’s website here). And the catchy tunes — like the memorable “Someone Got Shanked in the Shower” (video here) — must have helped, too. But there’s more to it than that.

NWT talked with the playwright (Blanchard), original cast members Tracy Leigh and Lisa Viertel (reprising their roles as Jeanine and the hook-handed Prison Matron, respectively), and director Bret Fetzer, for insight on what made the play so special.

For Viertel, it’s “about strong women getting to be bad and out there and where men were not part of the story.” About the experience, she continued, “I had never seen a script like this before — as inventive and playful and straight up cray sometimes. It was an absolute joy to be part of.”

Leigh echoed the potency of the all-women cast on the stage: “With an all-female script of strong unapologetic women, every one of us brought everything they had to it. Top that with the cast, and there was a lot of power on that stage. There were a lot of emotions, but there is a genuine bond among us all.” She also pointed to the director’s role, noting that Fetzer (who’s also her husband) “has an instinctive feel of Kelleen’s work and directed with a deft hand. It just came together seamlessly.”

Fetzer, who has directed several of Blanchard’s plays at Annex, noted that the play’s uniqueness starts with the playwright herself. Kittens “has stuck in people’s minds because [Blanchard] has such an ingenious theatrical voice — wildly funny, but funny in this dark, sly way, that captures the collision between human yearning and the ridiculous, absurd ways that yearning ends up being expressed.” He explained that “Kittens channels that voice through one of the most melodramatic genres there is — a women-in-prison story — and gives it just that necessary nudge to go not over the top, but right to the pinnacle and dance there.”

Ask the playwright, and Blanchard will point back to the others instead, starting with the “kittens” themselves. “I think we have such strong love for Kittens because of … well, because of the kittens. It was a very, very talented cast and they brought all of their gifts to the table. [Fetzer] directed with such love and precision and we had Rick [Miller]’s amazing songs. It was this magical group of people who really loved each other and the work.”

For the sequel — which Blanchard co-wrote with Jillian Armenante — expect a bit of a different format. For starters, it’s written as a whole season, and thus had to be cut for a one-installment stage reading. It’s also the sequel to the web series rather than the stage play, and therefore written for screen rather than stage. But, predicts Fetzer, there are “still a lot of wild delights to be had.”

Will the kittens taste freedom at last? Will they find true love behind bars? Or use Junie’s sunny disposition to get a truckload of smokes and Zagnut bars? We’ll find out Wednesday.

And the cast, for its part, is overjoyed to reunite for another take.

Said Viertel, of returning to her role as the malevolent Prison Matron: “I cannot wait to get my hook back on my hand where it belongs.”

We can’t wait, either.


Readings of Kittens in a Cage (8/27) and Kittens II (8/28) each run one night only at Annex Theatre on Capitol Hill. Tickets are free, with donations requested at the door or online; info and tickets/donations here. See original show and cast info here. Accessibility notes: restrooms are gender-neutral and single-stall; theatre is located up significant stairs, and neither venue nor restrooms are wheelchair accessible.

Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.