Krewe des Sept Productions (which recently won a Big Easy Entertainment Award for Best Comedy with last year's The Glass Mendacity , a Tennessee Williams spoof) made John Steinbeck this year's target.
Now, there's no John Steinbeck Festival around here, so we can all be forgiven for being a bit rusty on things like the exodus of Depression-era Joad family from Oklahoma's dust bowl. But, most everyone has read The Grapes of Wrath , or at least seen the celebrated John Ford movie. So the story is there, in our brains, somewhere, like a half-remembered dream.
Of course, the memory problem may be partly a result of the scattershot method in the Of Grapes and Nuts plot. A take-off on The Grapes of Wrath dominates, but, at one point, in walks a character called Lenny. He's a mentally retarded ex-con with a fondness for dead mice and rabbits. To find Lenny in Steinbeck, you have to go to Of Mice and Men .
The Steinbeck mishmash in Of Grapes and Nuts is similar to the Williams mishmash in Glass Mendacity . And that resemblance should come as no surprise, for both scripts come from the same source: the Illegitimate Players of Chicago, who wrote and produced them both in the Windy City.
Of Grapes and Nuts , which ran for a few weekends at the True Brew, was 'raw,' only in the sense that no one devoted a whole lot of time or money on visual niceties. A few chairs and a few platforms were moved around to suggest various locations. What gave the show its charm was the aplomb of the cast -- which successfully walked the thin and delicate line between staying in character and commenting, out of character, on various absurdities of the situation.
One of the running gags in Of Grapes and Nuts has to do with The Common Man as visionary. We know he is a visionary, because of the visionary set of his features (think of the Che Guevara poster). We also know he is a visionary because he always finds his spotlight before he delivers his heartfelt, valiant, salt-of-the-earth oration. Sometimes, he even has to fend off some equally valiant, salt-of-the-earth type visionary, who also wants to orate -- or at least, steal the spotlight.
The story concerns Tom Joad (Dane Rhodes), who comes out of prison and heads back to the Joad family place, which ain't the Joad family place no more, because the bank has foreclosed. Tom has got his prison buddy, Lenny (Jerry Lee Leighton) in tow. Soon, all the Joads, including Maw and Paw (Doris Methe and Perry Martin) are headin' West. It's a rough, pioneering kind of American voyage. One Joad tells us (take a moment, here, to imagine that visionary spotlight), 'We lost Paw. And we lost Maw. But we kept agoin'.'
Michael Sullivan, Karen Shields, Anita Lyles, Matthew Mickel and Marlene Thian completed the deft cast for this odd literary divertimento directed by Fred Nuccio.
'Raw' theater of a different stripe was happening at the Funky Butt on Rampart Street. Backstage at Da Fonky Burlesk was written and directed by Alycya Miller, who also performed the principal role. Actually, the play was not as 'raw' in the libidinous sense, as the title suggests. It was pretty 'raw' in terms of production values, however -- with the exception of some nifty little outfits with fringe and feathered tiaras.
There was so little theatrical machinery to help Miller and her costar Nedra Ne'Quan create a world that for the first few moments, one could not help fearing for them -- not to mention, fearing for oneself, as an audience member. There wasn't a single spotlight in the theater -- only two little standup lights that looked like they came from Office Depot.
But these two gutsy, young ladies soon won us over. They sang well and they moved well. And they quite simply refused to be dismayed by this most primitive of bohemian cabarets in which they were performing. Although they had an appealing sensuality, neither Miller nor Ne'Quam bothered much about trying to imitate classic stripper moves. Instead of throwing a little oomph to the boys in the balcony, they just enjoyed themselves. And so, naturally enough, we did also.
Although the spirit of the actresses overcame the bareness of the production, there were some places where their reach exceeded their grasp. For instance, the interview that prompted Brownie to tell her life story was a logical enough device, but, in practice, it proved awkward. The songs (written by Darlyne Cain and Alycya Miller) were catchy and the dances (choreographed by Adrian Lindsey, Nedra Ne'Quam and Shelissa Moore) were fun to watch. Here's to their next offering.