“Appalachian Squall” is a prohibition-era cautionary tale about love, pain, and alcoholism. Utilizing old archival & new film footage projections, original music, live performance, and the heartbeat of Appalachian culture – (live) traditional mountain music, this piece creates a black and white theatre/silent film experience you will never forget. “Appalachian Squall” is inspired by the grit of mountain life, the strength of mountain folk, and the stories and ballads of mountain music, whose sometimes festive, sometimes harrowing melodies and themes capture the romance and anguish of love and alcoholism.
Running Time: 21 minutes
Performing artist, musician, and creator Shira Abergel utilizes most of her many talents of writing, directing, and acting in “Appalachian Squall.” This multi-media, 3D onstage film, gives the audience the chance to feel like an old silent film is unfolding live before them. Not only is it a festival for the eyes, but the show triumphs with a live musical score written and performed by true professionals. “Appalachian Squall” will have you hooked before the lights even come up with it’s old time set of wagons, barrels, and rocking chairs. The story, the film, the acting, and the music will make you laugh, cry, and enchant you to the point where you don’t want it to end.
A projector screen hangs at the back of the stage, while the band sits to the side of the stage on a Medicine Show wagon with signs that say “Miracle elixirs, snake oil, cures for alcoholism etc.”
The show opens like a traditional movie with credits, and the title on screen accompanied by a soothing musical theme written by Shira Abergel. A narration then comes up beginning the story: “Deep in the heart of Appalachia, Somewhere in the hills of North Carolina, live a couple of folk who married. They we’re Jescoe and Mary-Ann Morton.” The banjo player then yelps “Yeehaw” and the story takes off with the fast paced old traditional mountain song “Sally Ann.”
Jescoe, Mary-Ann and a few of their friends are now onstage enjoying the celebration of their wedding day in a barn.
The setting of each scene, and the emotional state of certain characters is visually illustrated on the film screen throughout the show. All of the movement by the actors on stage is also stylized to match the projections and have it appear that they are actually in a fast paced (due to the old way of filming 16 frames per second) silent film. The actors never speak, so whenever a narration slide pops up the actors freeze, creating beautiful stage pictures.
As they all dance and drink at the wedding party, Jescoe becomes overtly drunk, and in turn jealous and violent when he sees Mary-Ann dancing with a male friend of theirs. Mary-Ann tries to calm him and take away his liquor. When she does, Jescoe becomes possessive over it and slaps her. The happy music comes to a screeching halt. That is the end of scene one.
The music shifts into a darker place with another old traditional song called “Walkin’ Boss.” We see Jescoe on one side of the stage in his place of work; the coal mines. As he works, he drinks. And as the end of the day nears, he walks out with his wheelbarrow and the lights fade to black.
Lights up on Mary-Ann on the other side of the stage in her place of work; their cabin in the mountains. She is a housewife; She cooks, cleans, and in this scene she dumps out a big jug of Jescoe’s whiskey due to his ongoing drunk behavior. Lights fade to black as she sits in her rocking chair to knit.
Lights back up on Jescoe in a saloon. He just came for one after work drink, but can’t resist and sits down to have a couple more.
As these short vignettes between the saloon and home go on, the music continuously morphs and we see time passing. Mary-Ann gets increasingly worried and frustrated about where Jescoe is while dinner is getting cold, and Jescoe gets more and more drunk at the saloon. Finally Mary-Ann goes out looking for him and finds him knocked out with his head on the table.
“Didn’t I tell ya not to serve this man no liquor!” she tells the bar-man. Lights fade to black.
We now see the couple in shadow behind the projection screen as Mary-Ann drags a sloppy Jescoe home in the rain.
Once they arrive home Mary-Ann undresses him, feeds him and sits angrily on the bed. Jescoe tries to make it up with her, and they begin to kiss while “Shady Grove” a traditional dark romance ballad plays. As they make up, Jescoe falls out of the mood, and takes out a flask. Mary-Ann starts hollerin’ about this and so Jescoe continues to make love with her roughly as the screen burns to black.
The next morning, Jescoe wakes up sick from his nightly binge. He has the shakes, and relieves himself with some more liquor. He goes outside to see the sun shining, birds chirping and melody of Morning Song (by Joy Adams of Avocado Estate) playing. He then sees the headlines. Prohibition of alcohol!
As the band plays “Prohibition is a failure” there is a montage of Prohibition on the screen; barrel smashing, liquor pouring etc, and this makes Jescoe crazy. But he gets an idea. A narration slide pops up and says “After liquor was outlawed Jescoe figured he join the moon-shiners of the region, for he couldn’t do without.”
“Whiskey Seller” plays while Jescoe sets up a moonshine still, serves a crate of it to a loyal bootlegger, and is sitting pretty smoking his pipe and drinking his shine. This doesn’t make Mary-Ann too happy, seeing as though it is illegal activity, and Jescoe is getting more drunk than ever.
Here the story then takes a departure from its linear scene to scene storytelling.
One of the musicians steps down from the wagon to the stage to sing an original song by Shira Abergel, which furthers the story a bit. While Joy (of Avocado Estate) sings this delicate ballad in her soothing and beautiful voice, Jescoe and Mary-Ann’s figures are seen against the white screen in the background. They are moving in circles. Jescoe is drinking and spilling, and Mary-Ann is cleaning up his mess. This repetitious cycle goes on until the song comes to an end with this lyric: “Mary-Ann is a good woman kneelin’ on her weary knees. There she’ll pray on for her love, damned with this liquor disease.”
From this point on the scenes become more and more metaphorical. This next scene is a series of fights and make-ups between the couple from behind the movie screen creating shadows.
The original music (by Avocado Estate) in this scene helps illustrate the struggle between the pain and love of Jescoe and Mary-Ann. Mary-Ann throws a plate across the screen, and tells Jescoe to give up the drink or get out. Jescoe begs for her forgiveness and to take him back. They kiss. Mary-Ann tries to hit Jescoe. He restrains her. They kiss. Jescoe leaves, Mary-Ann yanks him back. Mary-Ann then points sternly and walks at him with great force. Jescoe walks back to her and gets big and scary while on the screen it is written “FINE FINE FINE.” Jescoe gives in, but not without a fight.
He runs from behind the screen to the mooshine still and rips it apart. He bangs the pipes against the barrel and kicks it. Now in physical pain, he really blows his top and musters up all his strength to push the barrel over and spill out all the liquor he’s worked so hard for. This tantrum is the only sound that has come from the actors so far. There is no music here. Only the sound of Jescoe’s struggle to give up the drink; pipes banging and barrels hitting the ground. On the screen Jescoes words are “I cain’t do it on my own.” Frightened but wanting to help him, Mary-Ann walks towards him and on the screen it says “the good Lord’ll help ya.” Lights fade to black.
Lights come up on a Priest, Jescoe, Mary-Ann and the same group of friends who were at the wedding in the beginning of the show. There is a river on screen, and Jescoe is kneeling. The Priest baptizes him in hopes of a fresh start, to help Jescoe connect with God, and move forward alcohol free. “Raise to walk in newness of life,” says the Priest, and they do. Lights fade to black.
While a beautiful and relaxing fiddle tune (composed by James Schlender of Avocado Estate) plays, Jescoe and Mary-Ann sit in front of their cabin as Mary-Ann reads from the bible. Jescoe is sweaty, fidgety and looks troubled. Mary-Ann hands him the bible to read, but he refuses and tells her he wants to go for a walk and clear his head. She tries to go with him, but he wants to be alone. So she gives him the bible to take with him.
On this walk he encounters a double arrowed sign pointing in two opposing directions. He looks towards the way that takes him back home to his wife, the bible, and sobriety. He looks the other way, which takes him down the road to the unknown. A spinning coin appears on the screen and Jescoe watches it tentatively to see where it falls. What will be his fate? Before it lands, he kisses the bible, puts it in is back pocket and walks away from the arrow that points to home. Lights go to black.
A lively song called “Rovin’ Gambler” picks up and we’re back with Jescoe on a drinking, gambling, womanizing spree. The screen is flooded with card games, money, nude women and booze. Jescoe is in his element and having a grand ole time, until a fight breaks out, and the cops come to the underground establishment he is in. Remember these are the days of prohibition, and purchasing or selling alcohol is illegal. Jescoe is arrested and thrown in jail.
This bout of fun turns grizzly while Jescoe detoxes behind bars, and is the transferred to an asylum once the authorities catch wind of his “alcohol disease.” They treat it (as they did to many alcoholics in those days) with shock therapy and drugs.
Time passes and the hospital gives Jescoe some medicine to take home to help wean him off of his liquor dependency. Mary-Ann comes to bail him out, and takes a now very feeble Jescoe home.
Lights up on Jescoe in bed and Mary-Ann tending to him. He is going through withdrawal of alcohol (spasms, shaking, sweating, hallucinations) which can be fatal when going cold turkey. She goes to give him his medicine from the hospital, and sees that it is empty. She looks at how much money they have so she can buy some more, and they have none. Jescoe hasn’t been working, and previously gambled all of their moonshine money away. Mary-Ann knows the situation is bad, and starts praying vehemently to the Lord above. Lights fade to black.
“Undone in Sorrow,” a sad love song, plays as Mary-Ann walks up to a grave stone on screen. For the first time on stage she makes a sound. She calls out for her love through song.
“Over yonder in the graveyard
Where the wild, wild flowers grow
There they laid my own true lover
He’s gone from me, forever more
Fairer than the sweetest flower
Restless as the wildest way
Born with a love deep as a ocean
This is the man that I did win
Undone in sorrow
I will remain.”
Produced, created & directed by Shira Abergel
Featuring: Shira Abergel & Jameson Hammond
Written by: Shira Abergel
Original Music composed by: Shira Abergel & Avocado Estate
Music Performed by: Avocado Estate: Geoffrey Saunders (banjo, vocals), Joy Adams (cello, vocals), James Schlender (fiddle, vocals) avocadoestate.bandcamp.com/
Story Conceived by: Sterling Rook and Shira Abergel
Directed by: Shira Abergel
Film Director: Shira Abergel & Shaun Wright
Film Editor: Shaun Wright – AttackedByALion.com
Costume Design: Shira Abergel
Set Design: Shira Abergel and Laura Levene
Props: Shira Abergel and Shaun Wright
Carpenters: Shaun Wright, Sterling Rook, Laura Levene, Shira Abergel
Creative Consultants: Sterling Rook, Shaun Wright
Camera’s for Promo Video: Lydia Bittner-Baird – lydiabittnerbaird.virb.com
It premiered at the Here & Now Festival 2013.
“Shira Abergel’s “Appalachian Squall” was a nuanced and coherent narrative that, like Matthew Evan Taylor’s work, took a huge risk. Abergel used multiple elements — live music by Avacado Estate, old archival & new silent film footage and theater — to create a concise performance in 30 minutes or less that took us inside a dystopian world fueled by alcohol addiction, obsession with love and blind faith. Abergel balanced humor with drama, tone with tempo, and engaged the audience. Her work reminded me of the complexity and depth of Natasha Tsakos’ “Omen,” which debuted last year at Here & Now. However, instead of looking to the future as Tsakos did, Abergel looked to the past to reveal the things, the addictions and obsessions that still plague us today, to help us see what it is and why it is we cast them into the shadows of our homes, our families and even in the places where we worship and seek salvation. Abergel guided us through loaded subject matter with precision and clarity.” – Neil de la Flor
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