11 June 2013

Krispy Kritters at Cutting Ball Theater

A few Sundays ago I went to the Cutting Ball Theater to see their world premiere production of Andrew Saito's Krispy Kritters in the Scarlett Night, directed by Rob Melrose. The cheerful and efficient young woman who handles the tickets asked me how I was doing. "I'm OK," I lied. "Just OK?" she said. "Maybe our show will make you feel better." I smiled weakly, because that is what I do in situations like that, but damned if she wasn't right: two hours later I walked out feeling much, much better. Because a terrific evening of theater can do that to you.

But I'm not sure how to describe this play, or what I can say that would entice people to go, though I think they should. I often wonder why we decide to attend one event and not another – what piques our interest? People usually fall back on plot, but I often find that the least interesting element of a show – it's certainly the most transitory; once you let the horse of plot out of the theatrical barn, you can't coax it back inside. Some works grow richer if you watch them knowing how they develop and end, but works planned with such subtlety usually have other elements (character, psychological or social insight, language) that are even stronger than plot.

On the other hand, wondering what happens next is a basic human impulse. It's the energy that keeps a story moving forward. But I have to admit that one reason I've never seen a play by Neil Labute (on stage; I did see the film version of The Company of Men, which struck me as a bit off, like something written by someone who had read anthropological articles about "the alpha male" and corporate life but had never actually experienced either) is that they're generally sold in terms of their plots, which tend towards such overheated and calculated "controversy" that they seem to me the dramatic equivalent of clickbait. They just don't sound interesting to me, though I can see that they might to some others.

So I'm not sure what to say here that would be the right thing to say. Enthusiastic adjectives are too commonplace to catch attention, and though a lot happens in this play . . . well, the descriptions of Krispy Kritters that I saw beforehand made me think it might be trying too hard, or be a bit too cutesy or quirky. It's not; it's like being trapped inside several interesting minds at once. Here are some elements of the show, and I hope there's something that snags your attention:

There's a young man, Drumhead, who works in a mortuary, and has his own furry little version of a glass menagerie: a collection of stuffed mice and other vermin that he keeps in matchboxes (except for the hamster Jesus, hanging on a cross in his room); he's fascinated by the prostitute Scarlett. Scarlett's madame is her grandmother, a dear, semi-doddering old woman who enthusiastically recommends masturbation to women, and who occasionally loses her hearing, and when that happens, Scarlett or Nurse Candy will have to suck out the animal obstructing her ear, and the animal, caught in a paper bag, usually carries some sort of object as well, like a shoe (are these spirit animals carrying totems and portents? you can go as real or as metaphysical as you like with them); the animals get dumped out into the growing, growling, threatening menagerie in the backyard and basement. The grandmother sometimes requires a key body part from Scarlett; Nurse Candy traipses over and sweetly insinuates that Scarlett needs to do right by Gran Ma Ma until Scarlett gives in and the doctors take out her kidney or lung or whatever.

There's a rival prostitute as well, a young Japanese woman called Snowflake, and there are constant power struggles among these women. Drumhead is both fascinated and repelled by their sexuality. His father Pap Pap, a legless old man in a wheelchair, fights naval battles in a basin he holds on his lap. He dreams of getting his legs back. There are mysterious deaths among Scarlett's clients; Drumhead sees them at the morgue and plays detective, ineffectually, while he moons over Scarlett and Snowflake moons over him. It's all grounded in lots of bodily fluids, and lots of animal life, and lots of sex and death. There's flagellation and youthful yearning and aged regrets. Grotesque comedy gives way to grotesque tragedy, and vice versa. It all makes perfect sense while you experience it.

Credit for that goes not only to playwright Saito, who kept it all together while also taking it all apart, but also to director Melrose, and the versatile, deeply talented cast: Felicia Benefield as Scarlett, Wiley Naman Strasser as Drumhead, Marjorie Cump-Shears as Gran Ma Ma, Mimu Tsujimura as Snowflake, David Sinaiko as Pap Pap, Maura Halloran as Judge Gristle and Nurse Candy, and Drew Wolff and Caleb Cabrera in a variety of smaller roles.

It's the best kind of theater: you can't describe it, you can only really experience it. And if you go see it again, I think you'd have a different experience each time – you'll pick up on different themes and connections. The run was originally scheduled to end 16 June, but has been extended to the 23rd. Click here for tickets. Andrew Saito is just beginning a three-year assignment as Resident Playwright at Cutting Ball. I'm looking forward to what the next three years bring.

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