“Bitter Pill” turns the songs of Billy Butler into a surreal freak show in Portsmouth
“The Players’ Ring has just never seen anything like what we’re about to bring in there,” said Brandon James. “I was standing in there last night, and it’s just this tiny little room, and we’re literally bringing in a circus.”
James is half of the creative duo behind The Mad Men of Oopsy Daisy Inc. He was talking about “Bitter Pill,” the new Halloween-season show opening at the Ring in Portsmouth this Friday, Oct. 14. James and his Mad Men partner, Ben Hart, are the directors, choreographers, and designers of the show, which brings to life 24 songs by local musician, actor, and playwright Billy Butler.
“It’s not anything like anything I’ve ever seen,” James said of the show. “It’s not theater, it’s different than cirque, it’s different than performance art, but it’s all of that. Every song showcases a different art form.”
According to Butler and the Mad Men, the performance throws a little bit of everything at the audience. There are puppets and marionettes. There are aerial silks, cyr wheels, and unicycles. There are burlesque dancers and tap dancers. There’s live music and visual art, comedy and tragedy. There are monsters, goblins, and demons. And there is death. Lots of death.
In other words, it’s exactly the kind of treatment Butler demands. Seacoast audiences are already familiar with much of Butler’s work. His original musical, “Gay Bride of Frankenstein,” had successful runs at both The Players’ Ring and the Seacoast Repertory Theatre. His next musical, “Missing: Wynter,” was staged at the Ring two years ago. A singer and multi-instrumentalist, Butler has also recorded several albums, sometimes using the pseudonym Billy Bitter.
Butler has collaborated with James and Hart before, including on “Missing: Wynter.” It was about a year and a half ago that he approached the Mad Men about the idea of staging his songs as a theater trunk show, presenting work from throughout his eclectic catalog, including a few rarities.
“There’s stuff that I’ve recorded that no one’s ever heard,” he said.
The Mad Men of Oopsy Daisy Inc. have built a career in theater largely by tapping into their imaginations. Hart has toured internationally with “Avenue Q,” which helped fuel a fondness for puppets. Among the team’s skills is recovering garbage — couch foam, discarded coats, etc. — and turning it into puppets and other pieces of art. Butler refers to the pair as “art-cyclers.”
As they started working on “Bitter Pill,” James and Hart listened to almost every song Butler has ever written.
“From that, we chose 24 songs that we thought were the best. It didn’t matter where they were from, what musical, what genre,” James said. “We put them together into a playlist … and then, from that, characters sort of arose and scenarios and situations sort of spelled themselves out.”
The Mad Men strived to conceptualize Butler’s songs removed from their original context. Then they went looking for people who could bring those concepts to life, putting together a cast of artists, actors, puppeteers, dancers, musicians, and circus performers from around the region.
“Really, we picked like 12 of the best, most talented freaks in the area and just let them loose,” James said. “We just gave them carte blanche to do whatever.”
The show features a live band consisting of Butler on baby grand piano and vocals, Dave Hamilton on drums, Jamie Bradley on bass, and 17-year-old Victor Tracey on lead guitar. Other cast members sing and play instruments as well, including accordion, clarinet, ukulele, and percussion.
“We really tried to utilize the talents of everyone to the utmost,” Hart said. “Because it’s a musical revue and sort of a circus at times, anything can happen. Each piece is its own performance-art piece.”
There is no linear storyline, but a number of themes and recurring characters emerge, including the character of Death. Butler said some of the Mad Men’s interpretations of his music surprised him, particularly those pulled from past shows like “Gay Bride of Frankenstein.”
“It’s a different setting, different characters, but the emotion isn’t different. It’s the same,” he said. “And to see the interpretation outside of that show, it’s awesome.”
Bitter and bizarre
It was Butler who came up with the show’s title, “Bitter Pill.” He said the “Billy Bitter” alias suits his personality.
“I have this reputation within certain circles of being this angry, brooding man. I’m not,” he said. “I’m bitter, sure. … I kind of think that I’m a bitter pill to swallow. Yeah, I might be a little rough to work with sometimes, but I think in the long run it’s worth it. And a lot of the songs in this show are kind of reflective of that. There’s a cynical yet whimsical edge to every one.”
“I want people to feel like they’ve gone to another dimension, and walk out carrying the dimension with them.” — Ben Hart
Though various messages reveal themselves in the show, James said his primary goal is simply to entertain people. He believes theatergoers are hungry for new and different experiences, as evidenced by the show’s successful Kickstarter campaign, which raised nearly $6,000 from 93 different backers.
“People are just starving for something different. They’re just starving for weird and interesting and unique,” he said.
Hart has a more ambitious goal.
“I feel like what I hope we’re doing is creating a whole new universe,” he said. “I want people to feel like they’ve gone to another dimension, and walk out carrying the dimension with them.”
For Butler, who has dabbled in numerous art forms and genres, “Bitter Pill” is a chance to showcase the range of his artistic pursuits.
“I hope that people walk away seeing that I’m not just in this little box,” he said. “I want to try everything. Life’s short, man. Why sit in a box?”
“Bitter Pill: The Songs of Billy Butler as Conceptualized by the Mad Men of Oopsy Daisy Inc.” is on stage through Oct. 30 at The Players’ Ring in Portsmouth. For show times and tickets, click here.