Friday, November 02, 2007

PLAY: "Milk 'n' Honey"

Photo/Benjamin Heller

It's a little ironic that Milk 'n' Honey best illustrates American eating habits with the structure of the play itself: an "a little of this, little of that" melange that throws together anecdotal monologues, hyperactive school-play presentations, comic PowerPoint demos, and a few unconnected vignettes. It's nice to see LightBox gorge itself on the different art forms out there, but the finished product achieves only the ephemeral sweetness of the honey bun our unfortunately diabetic hero so craves. That said, the honey bun, as depicted by the five writers of this play (C. Andrew Bauer, Ellen Beckerman, Shawn Fagan, Madeleine George, and Bray Poor) still happens to be pretty filling.

That's because the play has real characters, the integral ingredient of any show. Never mind that the plot comes in bite-sized portions that can't sate our appetite: we've got Audrey, a rebellious grocery store clerk; her would-be-boyfriend, Ambrose, a dumpster diving stockboy; then there's Renee, a glutton forced to change her lifestyle after a diabetic scare; Jesus, an immigrant trying to keep pace with the tomato trucks in the field; and Fred, a flavor chemist who turns from processing jellyfish jellybeans toward manufacturing a new taste, that of light itself. In addition, the cast also doubles to provide testimonials -- slices of life -- as if this were The Fajita Monologues: farmers, waiters, homeless men, grandmothers, even the Secretary of Agriculture speak out about food problems in America. And because more is better, we get to meet some anorexic children, watch the reactions of students watching slaughterhouse footage (i.e., an animal snuff film which, in its thirdhand descriptions, is the sliest portion of the night), and muse over a 6th grade Thanksgiving presentation that mines Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma for exuberant comedy:
"Did you know that corn is what feeds the cow that turns into a steak?" "And also the cow that makes the milk that turns into cheese and yogurt and also ice cream." "Amazingly, soda is also corn, as it is made out of High Fructose Corn Syrup, so when you enjoy a Coke...or a Pepsi...that is also the enjoyment of corn!"
I've read Pollan, and I must say, this is the more immediately digestible diatribe. But Pollan actually made his points, and LightBox glosses over far too much, avoiding any real sympathy for its characters, with the exception of Vaneik Echeverria's tender depiction of Jesus. Here the illegal immigrant is not shown as an alien or as a hard worker, but as a man suffering to support the family that he has had to leave behind. It's in total opposition to Shawn Fagan's goofy performance as Fred, a role which -- while appropriately comic -- has no spine to it (which, perhaps is also appropriate, since its main focus is on a jellyfish).

What is more impressive with Milk 'n' Honey is the plating of the play: audiences are seated at picnic tables, treated to popcorn and sucking candies, surrounded by groceries (White Rose Vegetarian Beans, Luigi Giovanni Plain Tomato Sauce, Honey and Oat Blenders, Bavarian Dutch Style Pretzels), and then blitzed by a technologically savvy space. Ellen Beckerman turns the 3LD space into an abandoned factory floor, a tall and wide chamber that keeps the focus on the machinery within it (in this case, the actors). Multimedia usually comes off as a gimmick, but for a show like this that is already so subsumed by Americana, it works as a reflection of the constant imagery of the food industry, not to mention a really great way to focus all of the information being heaped onto the audience's plate.

Milk 'n' Honey is ultimately a tasting menu, a sampler of what LightBox and its team of writers-cum-chefs can do, and as such it's very satisfying. But I wouldn't ask for seconds: next time, I'd rather just have one main course, cooked to perfection.

No comments: