Saturday, March 28, 2015

Wildly on the Parkway

An evening with the Single Carrot Theatre company is always a wild one.  The wildness is not imited to their choice of difficult, avant-garde, often obscure dramatic fare.  It also involves unorthodox stage configurations, lighting, and sound engineering, unusual sets and costumes, and an energetic physicality that seems to be preparing some of the troupe members for the Olympic Decathalon.

Theatergoers will not be disappointed in their new production of Charles Mee's Utopia Parkway, one of the troupe's most creative endeavors.

Mee's script transposes an ancient Chinese folktale into an absurdist allegory and satire about the strange moral values of contemporary urban America.  The tale is a simple morality parable.  One upon a time, a poor man loses his wife to illness and gives up his daughter beause he can no longer afford to raise her.  Indentured as a servant to a wealthy widow, the daughter becomes beloved by her mistress, who soon treats her as her own daughter.  The widow is saved from robbers one evening by a father-and-son duo.  When the widow offers her saviors anything they want as a reward, they ask for the hand of the widow and her adopted daughter in marriage.  Greed is the motive.  The widow goes through with her promise but the daughter, egged on by the widow, delays a marriage she despises.  The outraged son tries to poison the grandmother-in-law but ends up inadvertantly poisoning his father instead.  The son manages to frame the innocent daughter for the murder.  But a Chinese tale always has a resourceful ghost.  After her execution, the wronged daughter's spirit returns to kill all those responsible for her trial and death.

Mee poetically transfers the tale to Utopia Parkway, an ethnically diverse community in Queens.  The Chinese roots of the play become marginal embelishments.  The Widow (Tracey Farrar) is now of African descent.  The Girl has now splintered into three characters of different ethnic backgrounds (Amanda Campbell, Camirin Farmer, Lien Le).  The Old Man (Paul Diem) and the Boy (Elliot Rauh) represent venal white males, a fop and a bully respectively, who specialize in avarice, blackmail, and assault.  The play also manages to satrize contemporary America, from its bizarre wedding-reception rituals to its sentimental romantic songs to its idolatry of a college education.  Seated arena-style on the four sides of the blackbox space, the audience looks down on the wrestling-like action, energetically choreographed by director Genevieve de Mahy, who gives the ritual of crime, romance, and revenge a dynamic sheen of visual and audial spectacle.

The hero of the evening is the remarkable score composed by Peabody student Faye Chiao.  The settings for Mee's offbeat poetic monologues and choruses vary in style from the camp song to the romantic lyric to echoes of Cole Porter to anthems to the family and to self-esteem on "What I like."  For all the range in style and very American bits of pastiche, the score never abandons its neo-Chinese frame.  The instruments played by cast members---gong, drum, cymbal, bell---and the cliches from Chinese martial arts intermittently revive the Chinese roots of what has become a very American satire of a society that has lost its moral compass  ("There was a time when we always knew what it was we had to do") and has fixated on the most trivial tokens of status.  The score acquires a ritualized ecstacy in several of the numbers staged in the center stage around a suspended tire that acts as a sacred candelabra for the evening's events.

Run, do not walk, to the box office for this dazzling walk on the wild side.  



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