Monday, June 12, 2017

Review: Welcome to the Pet Shop

By Michael Block 

Charles Ludlam, the master of the absolutely ridiculous, is a theatrical game changer, but rarely do his masterpieces get the full production treatment. But fret not, Theater Breaking Through Barriers is taking on The Artificial Jungle. Directed by Everett Quinton, this revival is a welcome reminder of the brilliance of Charles Ludlam. But the production doesn't come without some imperfections.
Originally premiering in 1986, The Artificial Jungle was Ludlam's exploration of comedic horror noir. His story follows Chester Nurdiger, his wife, Roxanne Nurdiger, and their pet shop. When Zachary Salde, a mysterious drifter, instantaneously responds to a help wanted sign in the window, Roxanne's lust for an escape from the mundane is piqued. Roxanne and Zachary concoct a plan to off Chester and earn his life insurance, the pet shop, and be free to explore their newfound love. The subversive styling of The Artificial Jungle holds up all these years later. It's wonderfully ridiculous.  Everett Quinton, a key player in Ludlam’s life and career, directed this play loudly and yet the laughs came mellifluously. The comedy needed to be much sharper. The text was there. The staging was faltered. With the aggressive, over-the-top acting to match Ludlam’s script, the visual gags where lost due to the sight lines and layout of the world. The set, designed by Bert Scott, had its flaws. For example, the parrot puppet was on a low shelf that was not visible to all. The cuckoo clock was often on the opposite side of the stage from the joke, forcing you to look away at the visual punch line. The script dictates there needed to be distinct spaces but Scott’s defied walls. It just was never justified in Quinton’s staging. Even with a piece of this nature, there needs to be an ounce of believability. And it’s hard to believe just because the lights are down in one space that a person can’t overhear the conversation, especially when moments before a character broke the imaginary wall. Aesthetically, Scott’s green-tinted pet shop, filled with cages and terrariums, was wonderfully campy and flamboyant. The cheerful nature of the shop, juxtaposed to the evil deeds within the story was quite a happy marriage. It truly was a terrifyingly cheerful set. Also taking on the lighting design, Bert Scott played into the comedy of the piece. Calling attention to the conspiracy between Roxanne and Zachary was an exceptionally smart touch. But this lust light needed to snap back in and out much faster to match the comedy of the moment. The reality snaps were dictating properly by sound designer Julian Evans. The use of subliminal underscoring kept the campy horror mood alive. Costume designer Courtney E. Butt used a bright, period pallet, with the looks of the night appearing on Roxanne. The true star, well stars, of the show were the piranhas, created by puppet designer Vandy Wood. With a vivacious personality, the piranhas, animated by puppeteer Satoshi Haga, earned some of the boisterous laughs of the night.
photo by Carol Rosegg
Over-the-top was the name of the game on stage at The Clurman Theatre. The five-piece ensemble went big and bold with a tinge of reality, and played into the hands of the audience. As the desperate housewife with a lust for an escape from the mundane, Alyssa H. Chase was comedy noir gold. Chase adopted a high, squeaky voice to make Roxanne have a tinge of vapidity despite her strength. Taking on the man of mystery Zachary, Anthony Michael Lopez, kept a continuous face of fear and uncertainty as the plan was in motion. Lopez and Chase were strongest in their moments of insatiable comedic thirst for one another. David Harrell as the oblivious pet shop man Chester dove deep into physical comedy, and it paid off. Though, at times, Harrell’s extremes were a bit harsher than the rest of his castmates’. Anita Hollander and Rob Minutoli were both wonderful supporting players. Hollander came to life when Mother Nurdiger, well, stopped.
The Artificial Jungle was a loving homage to Charles Ludlam. It may not be perfection but it certainly is cheeky. And sometimes, that’s all you need in a night out at the theater.