REVIEW: Bad Seed - Academy for the Performing Arts, Huntington Beach
Updated: Jun 20
"...this still-shocking play is causing audiences to gasp in disbelief!"
Novelist William March definitely struck archetypal gold when he conceived eight-year-old Rhoda Penmark, a budding sociopath schoolgirl with the internal drive to get what she wants the easy way - by threatening and ultimately killing anyone who stands in her path! Such is the fare currently at the Academy for the Performing Arts, Huntington Beach Union High School, where this still-shocking play is causing audiences to gasp in disbelief. Playing for three days only, November 8th through 10th, the final two performance of "Bad Seed" are today at the 2pm matinee and 7:30pm tonight.
Opening on Broadway in 1954 with 334 performances, the play was shortlisted for the 1955 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The story has gone through a metamorphosis since then, including Mervyn Leroy’s Academy Award-nominated 1956 film of the same name, featuring many of the Broadway cast. “Bad Seed” played on the idea that evil wasn't some devil or mythical monster, but that it lived next door in the most unassuming of places. And worst of all, that evil was a hereditary trait that could be passed on, with no control over your assigned nature. The mother herself is also severely troubled from her earlier experiences and genetic revelations, and the end result is a culmination of clandestine murders and casualties along the way. The pure genius of Maxwell Anderson's play adaptation is its insistence on psychological terror.
Rhoda is, of course, something of a caricature, and made all the more creepy by her always pure appearance. With her tight pigtails, poofy red party dress, and armed with an elegant curtsy, little 8-year-old Rhoda Penmark, brought to life by Megan Michell, is like a living doll - hardly the most intimidating figure. But beneath that childish visage lies the heart of a cold-blooded killer, one that has rattled audiences now for over 60 years.
On the surface she is sweet, charming, full of old-fashioned grace, loved by her parents, admired by her elders. But there is something going on deep within Rhoda’s mind. She plays everyone like a game of chess, and always gets what she wants… no matter what the cost. As the slow-burning narrative succeeds in turning the screw, clues compound to suggest that Rhoda may be murderously ruthless.
During a school outing near the shore, classmate Claude goes missing and it is soon discovered that he has drowned near a pier. Rhoda's mother, Christine (Sophia Shajari), begins to suspect that Rhoda had something to do with the boy's death, especially after a visit with Miss Fern, the primly head of the most aristocratic school in the state, played by Olivia Pfost. Miss Fern, who has achieved a certain savoir faire within her community, and runs the school and much of the town social events along with her sisters, is the one who first makes Christine aware that something may be off with little Rhoda. When Christine finds Claude's penmanship medal hidden in Rhoda's special hiding place, Christine comes to believe that Rhoda was behind his death as well as some of the other sudden deaths surrounding the family.
Christine then becomes suspicious about her own past, and learns not only that she was adopted, but also that her biological mother was a ruthless serial killer. Near the end of the play, Christine, seriously depressed about an evil she cannot accept, decides to take both Rhoda's life and her own. She gives Rhoda a large quantity of sleeping pills, telling her they are vitamins. Then she shoots herself in the head, killing herself. Rhoda survives because the sound of the gunshot has alerted her neighbors to investigate and they find Rhoda just in time to save her.
Directed by Robert Rotenberry, who is celebrating his 35th year at the award-winning high school, his exceptional success in mentoring the main players shows onstage in their performances. Ms. Michell, who's most responsible for selling the story, dazzles and beguiles the audience with sheer acting power. But even playing pretend, her portrayal of Rhoda is a calculated work of a consummate artist. She knows just when to give the perfect look that sends shivers down your spin.
And she's especially great in her confession scene, when she reveals just how unfeeling she was in the murder of a fellow student. Her cool demeanor breaks into a fit of hysterics as she describes beating him to death with her shoes. It's a rare moment where Rhoda shows emotion, breaking down like the child she is and reminding us that despite being a killer at heart, she really is still a little girl.
Ms. Shajari as Christine, a gentle, gracious good wife and mother whose life is given meaning by the affection she gives and receives, simply blazes with emotional force and you feel her internal pain and distraught.
Col. Penmark (Mohammed Nasereddin), a dashing soldier in love with his wife and completely taken with his daughter Rhoda, is away for much of the events of the story, and never fully grasps the horrors that his little girl will bring about. Monica Breedlove (Tatum Allen), an intelligent verbose widow in the community, is smitten with the Penmarks, and fascinated with Rhoda, showering the child with gifts and fawning over Rhoda’s small graces. She becomes Christine’s sounding board as events take place within the story.
Emery Wages (Kenny Cook) is Monica’s younger brother, robust and friendly, though much quieter and more taciturn in most cases. Monica will point out that she thinks her younger brother is perhaps a closeted homosexual. In the 1950’s South, however, where I grew up, such a thing most likely would not have been spoken of too loudly in public circles.
Leroy, the groundskeeper, is portrayed intriguingly by Carson Taylor. The slow-witted Leroy, who seems to have a sixth sense about things happening around him, feels he is not in his rightful place in life. He views himself as being much more intelligent than the rest of these “rich folks” with their wonderful lives of leisure and luxury. He becomes Rhoda’s foil in the show, but also has a strange admiration for her. The two will butt heads constantly.
Mrs. Daigle (Kaylie Flowers), the grief-stricken mother of Claude Daigle who was drowned at the school picnic, spends most of the show intoxicated, speaking in broken sentences, and accusing the Penmarks, specifically Rhoda, of her son’s death. She is from a slightly lower social class and makes sure everyone is reminded of that. Although both envious and angry with Christine, she also is looking for comfort and acknowledgment from her.
Reginald Tasker (dramatized by Benjamin Edwards) is a friend of the Breedlove’s who writes detective stories and has made himself a minor expert in the history of crime. The stern and weary Richard Bravo (Simon Pike), characterizes the high flying mystery world renown writer who is Christine’s real father. The Messenger is played by Summer Magee.
While the play at APA’s Historical Auditorium and Bell Tower is double-cast with literally all different players except Brody Wyatt as Mr. Daigle on November 9th, there is just as much talent and charisma in that group as the one viewed. For the Friday evening show, Rhoda is played by Destiny Van Warmer. The Penmarks are played by Houston Aniol and Izze Ucar. Monica Breedlove is Kylie Martinson,
Emory Wages is Nathan Morelock and Leroy is portrayed by Sean Kato. Alisha Sweeting is Miss Fern, Benjamin Jara is Reginald Tasker and Sydney Rincon performs as the Radio Announcer. Mrs. Daigle is Carolyn Nguyen, and Ethan Wiersma plays Richard Bravo. The Messenger is Chloe Buettner.
The Assistant Director to Mr. Rotenberry is Kayla Foley, Technical management by Joe Batte and Costumes by Christina Perez and Mia Buck. Makeup and Hair is overseen by Caitlyn Wang, Scenic Designers are Theresa Ngo and Lauren Liang, Sound Design by Savanna Starks, and Lighting is by Caden Higgins.
This show is Highly, Highly Recommended! With only two shows remaining, get your tickets now to APA's "Bad Seed" at http://www.hbapa.org/see
National Youth Arts