Kitchen Dog Theater
Directed by Lee Trull
Set Design by Michael B. Raiford
Lighting Design by Lisa Miller
Costume/Prop Design by Samantha Rios
Sound Design by Kellen Voss
Fight Choreography/Gore Consultation by Cameron Cobb
Deb – Martha Harms
Mike – Michael Federico
Win – Max Hartman
Ash – Jeff Swearingen
Lulu – Leah Spillman
Glory – Miranda Parham
John – Barry Nash
Reviewed Performance 5/23/2014
Reviewed by Chris Jackson, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
As the anchor play to their New Works Festival, now in its sixteenth year, Kitchen Dog Theater is presenting Matt Lyle’s Barbecue Apocalypse. A world premiere is always exciting and fraught with possibilities and problems. Here is a brand new show with no preconceived ideas rising from other productions to hamper creativity, but also with the need for re-writes and tweaks as the rehearsals and performance run advances. Barbecue Apocalypse is no exception. Texas playwright Matt Lyle’s script is being given a fully mounted, staged production and is impressively acted by a company dedicated to bringing quality theater and new works (hopefully the same thing!) to Dallas.
Mr. Lyle co-founded Bootstraps Comedy Theater for which he continues to serve as Artistic Director, and several of his shows have been produced in local theaters. He moved to Chicago in 2007 where his play The Better Doctor premiered in 2010 and was named by NPR as one of the Top five Most Overlooked Shows. He and his family will be moving back to Dallas next fall and we will be gifted with the return of this talented theatrical presence. His pre-recorded preshow announcements for Barbecue Apocalypse are part of the entertainment and quickly turn into a comedy routine to get the evening off to a great start.
Barbecue Apocalypse is set on the back yard deck of a couple as they prepare to entertain their neighbors. Things soon get out of hand as an unspecified apocalyptic event ends the first act. The second act follows the same group of people in the aftermath of that event. The first act roars along with wit and action and its relatable and easily recognizable characters. If the second act begins to get a little didactic, it doesn’t matter too much as you get caught up in the situation and characters created by this talented ensemble.
Deb, played by Martha Harms, is never still, rushing about the stage, arranging and then re-arranging furniture and accessories as she and her husband prepare to host a barbecue for neighbors they very much want to impress. Ms. Harms’ Deb is tense, filled with jerky movements and quick head turns as she checks and re-checks every aspect of the “ambience” she’s trying to create. With every gesture and intonation, Ms Harm shows us how determined Deb is to keep the new people out of her house so they won’t see how ordinary everything is and the grass still needs cutting, and too many other things just might go wrong, and for God’s sake, these people are FOODIES! She worries over a neck scarf, and as the character, Ms Harms makes you believe all of this really matters. Despite the frantic preparation, the actress fills the character with human moments, and the touches and gestures aimed at her husband establish their bond and roles in the marriage. She’s afraid to cook for these people and thinks a barbecue will be easier and less formal and things on the deck will be easier to control. Ha! Little does she know….
The Everyman, a rather schlubby but cuddly host, is husband Mike, brought to complete-in-every-detail life by Michael Federico, with his hysteria about the lawn mower “thingy” that won’t work and the new gas grill that he’s afraid to fire up and his general sort of floppy arm movements and wide-eyed worried looks that establish his self-deprecation and general feeling of inadequacy. He takes pratfalls like a pro, and though Mike’s a published writer and should be proud, as his wife reminds him, he feels yeah, but it was in a periodical that nobody reads and he only got fifty bucks for it and … He’s the artist who feels things deeply but just doesn’t feel confident as the “man’s man” he’d like to be. As Win the neighbor describes him, “You’re a medium and I’m a large.” None of this helps his self-confidence. Throughout all of this, Mr. Federico keeps a straight face, trying sincerely to love his wife as she drives him crazy with the details for the party and illustrates this by generally running around rather aimlessly.
Neighbor Win makes his first entrance stealthfully, creeping up on poor Mike trying to water his plants and establishes their relationship immediately with his “gotcha!” His loud voice, confident swagger, pelvic and head thrusts and profane observations show he’s super cool. With sunglasses on, Max Hartman creates a “know-it-all” who moves in a self-satisfied way around the deck, king of all he surveys. Mr. Hartman takes this character and wrings every last drop of egotism he can find, with his every condescending look and snide remark. You just know from the way he holds his body that he thinks he’s God’s gift to everything! One leg cocked, thumb in belt buckle, beer in the other hand, his stance says it all. Here’s the guy you love to hate, but just can’t get enough of on stage. His second act entrance mirrors his first but in a wonderfully, completely different context. The cataclysmic event has changed everything, and it’s reflected in Mr. Hartman’s using the identical entrance blocking but coming up with a whole new motivation and physicalization to reflect the character changes. When he speaks, even his voice sounds different!
As the neighbors invited over to be impressed by the host and hostess, Jeff Swearingen as Ash and Leah Spillman as Lulu hit the stage solidly established in every detail. His glasses, skinny pants rolled just so at the ankle, the latest socks showing exactly the right amount above the trendy shoe, phone solidly in hand, he’s the hip nerd up on the latest everything. Mr. Swearingen’s considerable smarts as a comic actor are right on point, from his perfect character posture, and the sudden bursts of uncontrolled, nearly frantic movement and vocal manipulation as he lands every set up and joke. Mr. Swearingen plays Ash as self-centered but not aloof, fascinated by technology and oblivious to the tension in the air around him. It’s a treasure house performance filled with surprises at every turn. Who knew a pause could be held for so long and just get more laughs the longer it lasted?!
Matching him at every one of those turns, Leah Spillman, as his equally nerdy, not quite so hip spouse Lulu (what’s in a name?), is also decked out in glasses and skinny pants with a little pot belly that pays off in a couple of ways. From the way Ms. Spillman stands, speaks and looks around, you just know that her character is probably a vegan, reads only the correct web pages, volunteers at the local food bank and listens faithfully to NPR. A total character history based entirely on the technique of a skilled actress. However, Ms Spillman also gives us glimpses of the cracks in the perfect façade, as the more Lulu drinks, the more loose Ms. Spillman’s movements become, the sloppier the enunciation and the funnier the character. Comic timing, a gift as well as a skill, are on display in this performance as Ms. Spillman uses her voice and body to illuminate this not-so-one-dimensional character.
Glory is Win’s girlfriend, gloriously played to airheaded perfection by Miranda Parham. An “actress slash dancer” decked out in a sexy low-cut, high slit, hot pink gown, Glory blithely climbs the railing and exercises/poses her dancer’s body, putting on an unselfconscious show absolutely appreciated by Mike and Win. Ms. Parham pulls off what could be a stock character with great aplomb, never missing a comic beat, delivering punch lines and double entendres effortlessly. Her body moves fluidly and her open optimistic face completes the picture. Here is a creature gloriously alive and enjoying every moment of it.
All six of these actors make wonderfully complete character changes in the second act, after the apocalypse. What was weak becomes strong, what was cocky, subdued and what was seemingly brainless begins to show some actual comprehension of the situation. Barry Nash, as John, shows up toward the end of the second act. Mr. Nash’s movements and attitude seem to indicate that this character is just another survivor of the apocalypse and his dirty and disheveled appearance echoes the mention of the homeless from the first act and initially you may think that’s just what he is. As the scene progresses however, Mr. Nash gradually begins to exhibit a more sinister side to his character. Seated center stage in an abandoned car seat, Mr. Nash commands the stage solely with his voice and minimal gestures. His entrance is a rather strange, but logical-in-the-circumstances finish to the plot that has unfolded.
Set Designer Michael B. Raiford uses a three-sided seating configuration, with the deck of the home surrounded by stepping stones and a flower bed or garden toward the back at one side, forming the thrust of the stage. Done in pumpkin, orange and shades of yellow paint peeling away from the back fence, the vertical back wall of the house with its sliding glass patio doors and blinds, blank windows up above and strong horizontal strip of cyc behind are realistic and yet stylized enough to fit the real yet also somewhat surreal world of the play. A door in the fence and one of the theater exits used as an entrance complete the picture. Properties Designer Samantha Rios, who also designed costumes, has pulled together a wonderful array of familiar elements used throughout. Her costumes are spot-on for the characters, with shorts and t-shirts, skinny pants and “just the right accessory” to complete each ensemble. Their wardrobes after the apocalypse are suitably pulled together and worn.
Lighting by Lisa Miller is clear, clean and unobtrusive, giving strong support to the setting. Sound design by Kellen Voss is amusing and appropriate and even somewhat scary in an off-kilter way. The fight choreography in the first act and the use of the gore in the second are by Cameron Cobb and he manages to make the fight look real, funny and bumbling all at the same time. Not easy! I won’t give away the gore scene, just try to figure out how it was done after it happens.
The very skilled, slick and professional direction of the play has been carried out by Lee Trull. Mr. Trull’s own comic sensibilities are on full display as he manipulates up to six players around the thrust configuration, using the steps leading up to the deck and the stepping stones to good advantage to vary the levels and positions of his cast. Pace is quick without being hurried and his sense of when to build and when to let the play breathe are evident over and over. The character shifts between the first and second act are clear, motivated and work well for the story. After all, one goes through an apocalypse and one DOES change, some for the better and some for the worse. Mr. Trull shows his actors the path to take and they take it with clear visions of why and where they are headed.
It was interesting to think back to Kitchen Dog’s production of Detroit earlier in their season, also set in a back yard around a barbecue. Catastrophic events occur in both plays, and both end with the appearance of a character we’ve not met before who pulls events together. Barbecue Apocalypse is not a great play and the second act does need work, but it is certainly skillfully written with characters you not only care about but want to spend time with. And lots of laughs! To quote Mr. Trull, the topic of Mr. Lyle’s new script “speaks directly to our contemporary world – a place where the fear of not fitting in is greater than the threat of global catastrophe.” Advancing technology, fitting in, finding the place you think you want to fill in this world, are all things with which we can identify. It seems to me that the ending also points to the place of art and the artist in our world and how, in the rush and roar of our daily lives, the simple beauty of telling and/or listening to a good story can be such a comfort and safe haven in the midst of the chaos.
I can’t give away too much of the plot or things that happen without spoiling the experience for you, but I can tell you that you will spend a fun-filled, thought-provoking evening you won’t regret. The cast is uniformly strong, greatly skilled and more than capable of telling a gripping story. The production is handsomely mounted and directed with a sure hand. Hey, before the apocalypse occurs, get down to the MAC and Kitchen Dog’s production of Barbecue Apocalypse and let yourself be fed by the art of a well told, well presented story.
Kitchen Dog Theater
McKinney Avenue Contemporary (The MAC)
3120 McKinney Avenue
Dallas, TX 75204
Runs through Saturday June 21st
Note: BARBECUE APOCALYPSE contains adult language and situations.
Thursday - Saturday at 8:00 pm, and Sunday, June 1st and 15th, at 2:00 pm
Saturday May 31st performance is at 7:00 pm
Additional performances on Wednesday, June 4th and 18th, at 8:00 pm
Ticket prices are $15.00 Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday; $20.00 on Friday and $25.00 on Saturday. Pay-What-You-Can isfor the first 25 people on the Wednesday and Thursday performances.
For tickets and additional information go to www.kitchendogtheater.org
or call their box office at 214-953-1055.