Wednesday, October 20, 2010

THEATER: The Pumpkin Pie Show: Amber Alert

If the content of The Pumpkin Pie Show is any indication, then playwright/actor Clay McLeod Chapman would make a terrific parent. Not because he could scare the bejesus out any child with these stories--and Halloween is fast approaching--but because he's able to see the beauty in the ugliness of the world, and is able--year after year--to approach his showcase of monologues with an infectiously wide-eyed wonder, to get you pump(kin)ed up, regardless of mood. Above all, however, is his ability to empathize, a bit of craft that turns even the most vile people into victims.

This year's entry, Amber Alert, collects five new stories, but has lost some of the specificity of last year's Commencement, which, being a series of interlocked tales dealing with the aftermath of a school shooting, had more at stake. The tension is lessened, too, by the choices to split the performances between three actors (himself, the fiercely talented Hanna Cheek, and the young, admirable Hannah Timmons) and to add an original score to the proceedings (written by Radiotheatre and added onstage by Wes Shippee). The writing still pops--if you can say that about mushroom-capped cold sores or milky-thistled penises--as do the deliveries, especially Cheek's nervous and nervy portrayal of a "special" teacher on Parent/Teacher night. There's just more of a separation between actor and audience--which is odd, given the location: the highly intimate, spittle-will-fly Red Room; The Pumpkin Pie Show feels more like a showcase than a tour de force.

As a showcase, however, Amber Alert is outstanding, a conflagration of emotions delivered by an energetic cast. There aren't highs and lows in this show so much as heavens and hells, with hardly a moment of limbo in between. Without giving specifics away, wrestlers will knee-dive the stage; wives will all but caress the microphone; little boys will wistfully, tearfully dream of outer space; and troubled men will ball up within themselves--each scene brings a new series of sweet shudders, each character carries a wide variety of physical and tonal shifts. The unspeakable makes for thrilling theater, and Chapman's still got all the right words.

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