Childhood goes dark in 'The Flower Queen'

The first few moments of "The Flower Queen" drag us back to a time when falling asleep meant a reckoning with the monster under the bed. But this is not a production about a child squirming for a bit at the idea of a formless monster before comfortably sinking into dreamland. No, this monster actually is under the bed, and he's got wild grasping clawed hands, a horned head, and a voice that bellows and booms "I was the size of nightmares!" which is probably not what most kids want to hear in the darkness—or in the light, for that matter. The play largely centers around the conversation and exploits of a young girl and the monster, all ontological quandaries and pajamas. To its credit, this dialogue never lapses into the saccharine trap one might expect. It's funny and clever, but it is about a monster sort of terrorizing a young child, so the danger never completely goes away.

"It's a play designed to make adults feel like children," Allison M. Clendaniel, who plays the eponymous Flower Queen, tells me before she begins rehearsing. "Because it is about the alphabet, and a lot of childish things, it's designed to make you feel like you're in an episode of 'Sesame Street.' It's supposed to give you the feeling of when you're a kid and you don't exactly know what things are happening."

"The Flower Queen" is the newest collaboration between Clendaniel and her lover/best friend (lovers before best friends) Connor Kizer, who plays the monster under the bed. Their own origin story begins in collaboration, having met in an opera in which Clendaniel played a Moon Goddess. Currently they are working on a tarot deck based on the methods of Austin Osman Spare, one of Aleister Crowley's early disciples (though not a Satanist, they stress). Clendaniel moved to Baltimore to study singing at Peabody, and has found in Kizer something of a mutual muse.

Kizer, who grins with good-natured patience at some of my more asinine questions, is a veteran of the Wham City collective, among other endeavors that include bands such as the Creepers and the excellently named Santa Dads. Now he plays trumpet and sings in the Flowery, and his sole bandmate happens to be Clendaniel. Fittingly, the Flowery provides the pre-recorded soundtrack for "The Flower Queen" though apparently, this emphasis on flower imagery was unintentional. The band was named by a five-year-old who had no idea Kizer had already written "The Flower Queen" in a single day.

Their play clocks in at an hour, with a cast of three (in addition to Kizer and Clendaniel, Lorenzo Baeza plays five Treemaidens), and no elaborate set changes. Kizer began writing with two different actors in mind, but says "Two hours into writing, I knew that the play was for me and Allison."

Kizer is at ease rattling off various influences and explaining subtext. Of particular inspiration, Kizer cites Welsh mythology, "The White Goddess" by Robert Graves, and, of course, the alphabet. In this instance, it is the ancient Celtic Beth-Luis-Nion alphabet that serves as a totem that takes us to a place beyond the sounds its individual parts can create.

"The alphabet is the most powerful spell you lay on a kid," Clendaniel says. "Oghams are used in a lot of ancient pedagogy, you know, as a way to learn the months or the seasons. In 'The White Goddess,' Graves used a hand ogham that has the letters and ['The Flower Queen'] is structured into five fingers." Indeed, the full title of the play is "The Flower Queen: A Play In Five Fingers."

"Each of these fingers is the location of the five vowels of the Roman alphabet," she continues. "You go through in the play, it's kind of an exploration of what each letter means poetically, and it's constructed to represent the life cycle of a young female."

We discuss both the power and the limits of imagination. To Kizer, imagination comes with implications and perhaps even guidelines. "We're trying to look at the imagination as a tool and also being able to know when to put that tool away, and how to put that tool away when appropriate."

So there's a lot going on here. But mostly, there's a monster under the bed and a young girl forging a friendship—or maybe something that's not at all a friendship—and several shrubbery-bedecked ballet interludes set to the vaguely haunting original music of the Flowery, who sound like they belong somewhere at the intersection of Druidic chants and trip-hop. The play itself is both charming and performed without the least bit of pretension, despite some of the heady supplemental reading.

Finally, before I let them get back to rehearsal, I ask them which member of the Wu-Tang Clan the Flower Queen prefers. Kizer answers automatically "Ol' Dirty Bastard. I think the RZA could be argued, because the RZA is a genius, but Ol' Dirty Bastard is off the chain. Anything can happen with him. He's got that one song that's just him going [makes guttural noise]."

"The Flower Queen" runs through Oct. 31 at Yellow Sign Theatre. For more information, visit facebook.com/TheYellowSignTheatre.

Note: Lorenzo Baeza, who plays the Treemaidens in "The Flower Queen," was hit by a car Tuesday night and is suffering from head trauma. The show will continue through the weekend and donations to help with his medical expenses will be collected at the venue during showtimes and here through Nov. 13.

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