Monday, October 20, 2008

The Pumpkin Pie Show

There's a mad glint in Clay McLeod Chapman's squinting eye as he launches into "The Pool Witch," an energy about him so gleefully fresh that you not only see him as a thirteen-year-old, but see the hook his character dreams of having, too. The manic pirate speak--grossly exaggerated--sets the mood and rhythm of the story, while at the same time, somehow giving this baby-faced actor/playwright the ability to slip in poetic phrases: "Sizing up every slide Water World had to offer, it was as clear as chlorine to the seafaring three of Freddy, Chub, and me that our maiden voyage of the day had to be down the ride they called Moby's Nozzle." Later, voice aquiver, he will end up in the lap of an audience member, holding on for dear life, and you'll be hugging him back: welcome to The Pumpkin Pie Show.

This is storytelling at its most basic and finest: no set, no costumes, just bedroom stories for the adult crowd (or for some really twisted children). Tuck yourself in tightly: just don't expect to fall asleep. What makes Chapman such a terrific playwright--and entertainer--is that, as in his fiction, he is a master of voice. Ten years of the Show have only made him more confident, and the total lack of embarrassment is simultaneously endearing and terrifying: what won't they do? (He is joined by his long-time Show collaborator, Hanna Cheek, who matches his text blow for blow. The night I attended, she smoothly evoked a mother giving her prom-going son a "pep" talk in "Vagina Dentata, a jealous drunk at her younger sister's wedding in "Bridesmaid," and a seductive Southern-grown killer in "Overbite.")

The stories twist and turn--often darkly, as when a bum describes his "Poor Man's Mermaid" as having "eyes as glassy as a couple of jellyfish left on a beach of pale skin"--but what sells the show is the intensity of pure character on display. These aren't just trick stories: they are lives--admittedly, the lives of those we struggle so hard to ignore. How else to explain the tricky emotion embedded in each tale? The way the protagonist of "Overbite," despite her iron-jawed tendency to bite off a man's tongue, can still sweetly promise not to bite, or the way an elderly man can find happiness in his wife's Alzheimer ("Oldsmobile"), for that dementia makes them both young again. There's more to the Bridesmaid than the literal skeletons under the swing set: there's an honest pain in the way she feels spurned. That's the trick that Chapman has over, say, the Cryptkeeper: there's plenty of humor, but we find ourselves caring for these characters, no matter how flawed they are. (It's the same special sideways storytelling that makes Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard To Find" so anthologized.)

In one of the best moments of the evening (which, to be fair, changes at every performance: six of the fourteen plays are selected at random), Chapman's voice breaks as he observes the tan lines on the so-called "pool witch" up close, the way her name--Tabitha--is spelled out in block letters on her lifeguard-red swimsuit. It's a squeal of love, summed up in a few lines, and at the same time, a realization of the blurred line between fantasy and reality, ugliness and real beauty.

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