A werewolf and a werepanther, fast-paced banter inspired by George Bernard Shaw, songs that alternate Gilbert and Sullivan with haunting Balkan dissonance — these are the ingredients of Katherine Burger’s musical comedy The Curse of Batvia. A staged reading will be performed in the rustic Maverick Concert Hall in Woodstock on Friday, September 9, at 8 p.m.
“It’s like P.G. Wodehouse on speed,” explained Burger. She is perhaps best-known locally as an artist, partly due to her 18 years running the residency program at the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony, but Burger also writes, sings, and acts — skills that brought her into the world of “musical comedy — two of the greatest words in the English language,” she said with a laugh.
She has been writing plays for many years, including Morphic Resonance, which was produced in Los Angeles, Paris, London, and Berlin. The Curse of Batvia was begun when she was living in Olivebridge in a little house where Spalding Gray had spent some time. On a dreary November evening, Burger, an admitted Anglophile, longed to read an atmospheric mystery of the moors. She didn’t have such a book at hand, so she decided to write a play.
She had just worked with a group of playwrights devising an ending to Too Good To Be True, George Bernard Shaw’s last, unfinished play. “I so enjoyed living with the Shavian language, the archness and silliness, the banter,” she recalled. “I wrote a little play and had a reading at Medicine Show Theater in New York City. One of the wonderful people I had met at Byrcliffe was a composer and playwright, Roland Tec, who saw the show and said it should be a musical — and he’d like to write the music.”
Tec, former director of the Dramatists Guild, worked with Burger on the play. She applied to BMI Theater Workshop to learn how to structure a musical. “The dialogue has to lead up to the song, and the songs eat time,” she observed. “It’s a different structure from a play.” The script received BMI’s Harriman Award for best libretto of the year.
The Curse of Batvia has received several other readings at prominent venues such as the Emerging Artist Festival and “Musical Mondays” at the Jerry Orbach Theater in New York. Burger showed the score to Alexander Platt, the musical director at Maverick, and he liked it. “It’s not a Maverick production, but they’re allowing us to use the space,” said Burger. “We have four amazing singer-actors, all with Broadway credits. Mary Feinsinger is the musical director and pianist, and we have a violinist and a bassoon player.” One of the actors, Luis Villabon, will be flying off to Chile the next day to stage a Spanish-language version of A Chorus Line.
Burger’s plot revolves around two British characters — Chief Inspector Cottage and the crotchety Lord Roderick Recluse — and a brother and sister from the land of Batvia who are seeking a book of spells to break the curse that turns them into were-creatures under the full moon. The Brits express themselves through English music hall numbers, while siblings Anthea and Gunter sing songs like “I’m Done Being a Carnivore,” in the eerie tones of Eastern European music. Convoluted wordplay and outsized characters are part of a show designed purely to entertain, simultaneously literate and over-the-top.
Katherine Burger’s The Curse of Batvia will be presented in a staged reading at Maverick Concert Hall, 120 Maverick Road, Woodstock, on Friday, September 9, at 8 p.m. Maverick ticket books will not apply; admission is by donation.