Ghoulish giggles in Firehouse’s Shop of Horrors

Little Shop of Horrors, the musical inspired by the Roger Corman film, has always been subversive. It’s a comedy, sure. But the undercurrent of the wretched of the earth, the denizens of Skid Row, who haven’t got a chance and expect nothing, flows throughout the narrative. Many characters are cynical, except for Seymour and Audrey, who work at Mr. Mushnik’s Flower Shop. They are both naive, but affable, perhaps the only two likable characters in the show. Seymour was adopted by Mr. Mushnik as an orphan. Now he sleeps on a mat in the basement, sweet-natured enough to be grateful to Mushnik, who isn’t exactly a philanthropist. Seymour is a lovable nebbish, schmendrick among the losers of Skid Row, but the kindest and most genuine we’ll find. When he discovers an unusual plant, of course, he names it for his Lady Love, Audrey (i.e. The Audrey II). Audrey doesn’t squeal, but rather, squeaks her surprise and elation. Like an adorable mouse. This kind of wry, tongue-in-cheek cynicism, suffuses like the acrid scent of a smudge stick.

Once word of The Audrey II gets around, and Seymour gets a taste of notoriety and success, he discovers the plant can only subsist on blood. As Audrey II grows and Seymour sees Audrey herself being abused by Orin, the dentist, his path is clear. Kill Orin and feed him to the plant. At this point Little Shop reaches it’s most gleefully grisly, when Seymour sings a duet with the plant: “….The guy sure looks like plant food to me…” Perhaps it’s because of the unlikely nature of the premise that makes giggling and merriment so hard to resist. An enormous plant that devours people whole? C’mon. And yet watching her swallow them is unbelievably funny. Little Shop’s perverse, quirky mix of nihilism, absurdity and class revenge goes down surprisingly well. Misanthropy is pervasive, and suffering a given. When Orin sings his ode to dentistry and the opportunities it affords for sadism, it’s so off the charts, we can’t help but laugh. And we’ve all been in that terrifying chair.

Director Marilyn Setu and this maniacal, meticulous, amazingly energetic cast bring out the chills and chuckles in Howard Ashman’s and Alan Mencken’s ghoulish comedy. Setu has evoked an eeriness that I have never seen in previous productions, throughout the Metroplex. It was surprising and pleasurable to see the touches that took Little Shop to the realm of dread and despair, while maintaining the thread of deliciously preposterous humor. Setu treats us to her unique, jaundiced vision, and it’s just right for Halloween and a tickle to the ribs.

The Firehouse Theatre presents: Little Shop of Horrors, playing October 12th-29th, 2017. 2535 Valley View Lane, Farmers Branch, Texas 75234. 972-620-3747.

Intense, poignant Cocoanut Grove at Core Theatre

In 1942, the Cocoanut Grove was all the rage in Boston. Movie stars, celebrities and the hoi polloi all rubbed shoulders, in an exuberant gathering of music, dancing, dining, and basking in the high life. The Grove was so popular, they had trouble with customers walking the check. Hard to keep track of them all. So some exits were locked, some were hidden. The Fire Marshall was stretched too thin, or remiss in his duties, or maybe both. Some speculated a waiter started the blaze when he struck a match to illuminate a table where the bulb was out. It was common practice for lovers to loosen the light for privacy, and waiters to solve the problem with a quick scratch. Whatever the ingredients in this black magic, this merciless catastrophe, 492 lives were lost, and the world would never be the same.

Playwright James Prince tackles a difficult subject in Inferno: Fire at the Cocoanut Grove 1942. First the raw facts and then the spiritual, metaphysical implications. We meet different characters: musicians, singers, hat check girl, bus boys, dancers, patrons, and get a feel for the prevailing attitudes of the time. From the newsreels of 1942 with headlines, glamour, trailers from new movies, to the monologues and dialogues between characters, we get a feel for the innocence, the carefree exuberance, that seemed to be everywhere. Then we get descriptions of the holocaust. Fire gobbling drapes, walls, furniture, décor, in an instant. Stampedes of panicked customers, grisly stacks of the dead. Salvation that feels random and inexplicable, acts of heroism and overwhelming injury and destruction.

In any piece that reflects on atrocious events, that change lives before the victims can even process, certain questions arise. Why was I spared? Why did those people die? Why does God permit this kind of ghastly, horrific situation? Why couldn’t I do more? Prince explores this introspection and painful doubt, relief or engulfing despair with sensitivity, intelligence and humanity. He never stoops to the tawdry or the lurid. He does not presume to judge his characters, but gives them the opportunity to share their truths, without suggesting there can be any one satisfying answer. Yes, this calamity forever changed safety regulations, but sadly, there are still those who think they can fudge without consequences. Apart from from these considerations, Prince touches briefly on the more vast implications, just enough to nudge us to the realm of the terrible and awesome.

The Core Theatre presents Inferno: Fire at the Cocoanut Grove 1942, playing October6th-29th, 2017. 518 W. Arapaho Rd. Suite 115, Richardson, TX 75080 . (214) 930-5338.

T3’s audacious, dystopian Adding Machine

Adding Machine is a tongue-in-cheek, satirical musical, adapted from the play by Elmer Rice that debuted in the 1920’s. On the 25th Anniversary of his hiring with an accounting firm, “Zero” is fired. His boss explains no hard feelings, but an adding machine is far more efficient, without the bother of requiring a wage. Expediency eclipses humanity. Poor Zero is not a human being, but an asset that has ceased to be essential. He has fallen under the ax of expediency. In a fit of blind rage he murders his boss, and condemned to death by hanging. But that is just the beginning.

From the outset, we can tell Adding Machine is not a conventional musical. A chorus of four supplies histrionic, operatic urgency and fills in by playing various roles throughout. Their often amusing behavior stands in stark contrast to the content of the lyrics. We begin with Zero and Mrs. Zero, climbing into bed. While the missus natters about gossip, social obligations, disappointments. Sadly, she is an unmitigated harridan, and it’s not long before she digs in: I was a fool to marry you, this sort of thing. There is a cartoony, excessive mien to all this, all the better to tickle you, my dear; a blending of social commentary and absurd humor. In the office we see the daily rhythm of adding numbers, and gradually catch on that despite their bickering, Zero and his assistant, Daisy DeVore, have an unacknowledged yearning for each other.

Rice was probably ahead of his time in writing this dystopian critique of the empty values behind capitalism. The subsequent score and libretto by Joshua Schmidt and Jason Loewith italicize and heighten the material. The murder of The Boss is merely a triggering event that propels Zero to death row and the afterlife, and subsequent examination of the foibles of humanity and our need for purpose. There’s a wry undercurrent to the most serious of events, never letting us forget we are witnessing a marriage between the wretched and the ridiculous. Even when Zero is offered the opportunity to move past drudgery it would seem he is more devoted to his shackles. For all our encouragement to read him as a schlub, he is also an Everyman, finding his value as a person (and a man) in the soothing ritual of a repetitive job.

I never cease to be astonished at the stamina, brilliance and inventiveness of the shows at Theatre 3. Artistic Director Jeffrey Schmidt has taken the new season in an edgy direction, with fresh ideas about practice and worldview. Director Blake Hackler and this diligent, dedicated, kinetic cast (Allison Pistorius, Thomas Ward, Jenni Roller, Brandon McInnis, John Daniel Pszyk, James Chandler, Angela Davis, Kathryn Taylor Rose and Ashley Wood) et al, bring a loopy, hilariously grim energy to this deliciously jaundiced fable.

Adding Machine: A Musical plays September 28th -October 22nd, 2017. Theatre 3. 2800 Routh Street, Suite 168, Dallas, Texas 75201. 214-871-3300.

Absorbing, trenchant Occupant at WingSpan

Albee’s premise for Occupant is deceptively simple. A character known simply as “The Man” posthumously interviews the ghost of ground-breaking sculptor Louise Nevelson. You would think such an exchange would be straightforward, and in some ways it is. Using a set (by Nick Brethauer) that features some of Nevelson’s sculptures and music reminiscent of PBS talk shows from the 70’s, Occupant asks the sort of questions we might expect, before delving into what might be construed as intrusive. In the world we currently inhabit, it’s hard to imagine any inquiry that exceeds the lines of propriety. Celebrities discuss deeply personal issues without batting an eye, and interviewers are allowed latitude past polite evasion. The difference in Occupant is Nevelson’s interrogator, while certainly not aggressive, has an annoying habit of responding with passive disdain. If you say so, or Whatever you say. This sort of thing. Sometimes Nevelson takes the bait, and sometimes she doesn’t. Sometimes she’s appalled by his sheer audacity.

Nevelson’s first response is surprise the host needs to tell the audience who she is, as if nobody has heard of her phenomenal career. I think the allure of this piece is that Edward Albee wants to tap the core of what made Nevelson unique. Occupant was published in 2001 and we can only speculate if the trend away from deferentially laudatory biographies (though respectful) had begun at that time. Albee doesn’t use any of the predictable hocus-pocus you might expect from a drama that includes a deceased character. There seems to be a very wide discrepancy between how Nevelson wants to be remembered and the sometimes tawdry, often painful details that The Man persistently seeks. Nevelson repeatedly struggles to maintain her composure when he catches her off guard, and is certainly not above lambasting him with an impassioned Fuck off.

Behind the interviewer’s desire to avoid strewing garlands at Nevelson’s feet, and her refusal to be degraded in front of strangers, lies the question of how much does a famous success owe their public, and how does anyone (even a genius) forgive themselves, with all their ghastly flaws? A female celebrity was probably a better choice. Notorious examples, such as Hitchcock, Einstein and Picasso probably had little problem granting atonement to themselves. Being men. Nevelson discusses her failures as a mother, and her infidelities. But grudgingly. Albee seems to be aiming to show the woman, the brilliant, quirky, defiantly unique artist, with her strange worldview and regrettable mistakes. Nevelson comes off as achingly human. But then, we also begin to grasp the chutzpah it took her to break out and shock the world, as any significant sculptor must.

Occupant plays October 5th-21st, 2017. WingSpan Theatre Company. The Bath House Cultural Center. 521 East Lawther Drive, Dallas, Texas 75218. 214-675-6573.

See Outcry’s Bat Boy and take a dip in the darkside

It takes a special kind of dementia, to take a creepy, somewhat cynical, depraved yet heartfelt piece like Bat Boy the Musical, and do justice to it on the stage. Outcry Theatre has that marvelous, intelligent, yet rare dementia. You can’t let the audience know you’re in on the joke. The performers must be utterly convincing and convinced, yet we, in the audience, are never quite sure when it’s OK to laugh. Ironically, I can think of few times (if any) when laughter is inappropriate. You see, the creators of Bat Boy (Keyth Farley and Brian Flemming (Book) Laurence O’Keefe (Music and Lyrics) don’t deny that Edgar, the Bat Boy is a freak of nature, who deserves our sympathy. They just also happen to find the situation hilariously funny.

The Bat Boy has struck fear into the hearts of the townsfolk, though he truly means no harm. He is taken into the home of Dr. Thomas and Meredith Parker, and their teenage daughter Shelley. The Parkers feed, clothe, and educate Edgar in the social graces, which he absorbs with facility and gratitude. Against the veterinarian’s better judgment, Meredith and Shelley take Edgar to a revival. While the Bat Boy has a brief taste of acceptance, the social experiment soon turns into a debacle and the congregation, a lynch mob. Before it’s all over, the depth of the Parker family’s dysfunction will be explored, as well as the limitations of Christian tolerance and Edgar’s dubious conception.

Outcry Theatre has staged Bat Boy the Musical, with its layers of satire, deliciously distasteful content, humanity, and (so repugnant it’s ridiculous) transgression, and transmogrified it into an insanely improbable evening of comic delight. An innocent lab assistant is molested by bats, woodland creatures sing and engage in sexual congress, drag costuming consists of glasses and a wig. You find yourself thinking you shouldn’t laugh, but it happens anyway. What could be better? This kind of (so awful it’s great) humor is in vogue lately, you can find it nearly everywhere. But few have the chops, savvy, and pitch perfect gift for tone that Outcry does. They carry it off with fluid, intuitive finesse. Needless to say, October is the perfect time of year to enjoy this brilliant, juicy lunacy. It will tickle you to the bone.

Outcry Theatre presents Bat Boy the Musical, playing through October 6th- 15th, 2017. Black box at WaterTower Theatre. 15650 Addison Road, Addison, Texas 75001. (972) 836-7206.

Touching, bittersweet Bus Stop at Rover

A preeminent playwright of the American theatre canon, William Inge produced some of our most enduring dramas. Picnic, Come Back Little Sheba, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, and of course, Bus Stop. His characters are not especially noble or immoral, usually ordinary (if often disillusioned) folks. Grace’s Diner is the layover for bus passengers, who, for one reason or another, need to wait before moving on. A blizzard has forced Cherie (a young lounge singer) Bo and Virgil, a couple of cowboys, and Dr. Lyman, an erudite, alcoholic English professor to kill some time. There is also Carl the bus driver, Will the sheriff, and Elma, the bright high school student, who helps Grace at the diner. In one way or another (with the possible exception of Will) they are all broken. Cherie’s romantic experience exceeds her life experience, Grace needs lovemaking but isn’t ready to live with a man, Bo wants a wife but has no charm, and so on. One by one, we learn the details of each one’s story, as they pass the time till the road clears.

My buddy Michael pointed out that, underneath it all, Bus Stop is really about sex (or the lack thereof) and he’s probably onto something. It might be closer to say that each is trying to deal with their own, personal challenges. And how that works out (or doesn’t) in the bedroom. You could also apply that theme to Inge’s other plays, including his screenplay, Splendor in the Grass. There is a tenderness in how the characters in Bus Stop, stuck with each other’s company, are summarily revealed, but never treated judgmentally. Bo may be obnoxious and full of himself, but nobody says anything hurtful or unkind to him. Inge is careful to show each one’s strengths and weaknesses, their transgressions and humanity.

Rover’s production of Bus Stop is light-hearted and poignant. It’s very clear all the actors are dedicated and giving 100%. One of the hazards of staging a familiar classic, is the possibility of missing subtext and nuance. Often plays that seem plainspoken and straightforward on the surface, have much more happening by way of subtext. Like the best playwrights Inge doesn’t tell us what to think, he just lays it out there and let’s us reach our own conclusions. The more we engage, the deeper we might go. Director Matt Stepan brings a gentleness and warmth to this production.

Rover Dramawerks presents Bus Stop, playing September 14th-October 7th, 2017. 221 West Parker Road, Suite 580, Plano, Texas 75023. 972-849-0358.