Jessica Sherr: Bette Davis Ain't for Sissies!

Jessica Sherr, writer/performer of Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies!, will open the Chekhov Festival in Ridgefield on Sept. 26. Janice Orlandi directs.

In 1900 Anton Chekhov wrote to Maxim Gorky, “One usually dislikes a play while writing it, but afterward it grows on one. Let others judge and make decisions.” 

That will be both the task and the pleasure for audiences at the Fifth Annual Chekhov International Theatre Festival opening next Thursday, Sept. 26, with Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies! at the Theatre at Schlumberger, 36 Old Quarry Road, Ridgefield.

Jessica Sherr, both writer and performer of this piece, received accolades for her performance in Edinburgh, Scotland, where the piece enjoyed a successful run at the 2013 Fringe Festival. Said a critic, it “now deserves to go on the road — next stop should be the West End, London, and then Broadway, New York!”

But Ridgefield has become the intervening one-night stop for this tour de force created over a period of four years.

Ms. Sherr told the Huffington Post, “I’ve always loved the 1940’s — pin-up girls are my thing — so I was messing around with a few friends, looking over my shoulder and doing my best Betty Grable impression. And my friend said, ‘Oh, you have Bette Davis eyes.’ I said, ‘No, I’m doing Betty Grable.’ ”

And with her friends’ encouragement Ms. Sherr began researching Bette Davis and found that there were so many moments in their lives that connected … from the awkward small-town girls coming to the big flashy cities, to the proper upbringings in small towns.

What we find in a piece like Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies! is that through continuous study and practice, an actor not only plays the role of a character, she embodies that character. That’s exactly what Michael Chekhov, world-famous acting coach to the stars, taught in Ridgefield back in the early 1940’s when he started his acting school in an old barn off North Salem Road.

Night two of the festival, Friday, Sept. 27, will feature Apple, a complex and powerful story that goes from reality-based drama to moving magical realism. The work premiered in Edmonton, Alberta, and has since been produced in Poland, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles and New Jersey. Written by Vern Thiessen, considered one of the most diverse and successful playwrights in his home country of Canada, the play was described by Naomi Siegel of the New York Times as “a lyrical work on the nature of love” that “pares emotions to the cellular level.” Apple is written in conscience-exposing staccato dialogues that lead the audience carefully through a process of surprising discoveries. It explores the notion that bombshells of fate fall upon your life like apples: sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet.

Saturday, Sept. 28, will offer a double-header. Milk A Cow’s Tail by Sheri Graubert, which focuses on environmental issues related to fracking, will be presented as a staged reading at 2 p.m. Three experienced actors will perform the reading, Elowyn Castle, David Marantz, and Karla Hendrick. A Q&A immediately following the reading will give the audience an opportunity to discuss the subject and its presentation in Milk A Cow’s Tail.

The second festival Saturday performance, at 8 p.m., will be a comedy by Brandt Johnson called Killer Therapy.  The play premiered just weeks ago as part of the 17th Annual New York International Fringe Festival (FringeNYC). In Killer Therapy, an infamous assassin facing a mid-life crises pays a surprise visit to a pacifist therapist as she’s about to leave for spin class. She stays. He recovers his lost humanity and she finds her inner ninja. Directed by Katie Lindsay, the play will be in Ridgefield for one night with an opportunity to meet and greet the actors after the show.

Tickets for the entire Chekhov Festival are $25 and individual performances are $10 each. Additional information and ticket purchases are available at the website or by calling 203-431-2774. Some individual show tickets may be available at the door prior to each performance.

Chekhov Festival audiences will also see an art exhibit by three local painters/printmakers entitled Uncommon Landscapes. Suzanne Benton of Ridgefield, curator of the exhibit and board member of the Chekhov International Theatre Festival, is exhibiting her work along with Stephanie Joyce of New Canaan and Alberta Cifolelli of Westport. All the art will be for sale with a portion of the proceeds going to support next year’s festival.

When Rudy Marconi, both Chekhov board president and First Selectman of Ridgefield, was asked why Ridgefield had so many theatrical stages and performances his response was simple: “When there are as many theaters in Ridgefield as there are ball fields I will rest…but not before!”