Staging a low-budget adaptation of a Trey Parker film that has been called a “horrible idea” by South Park co-creator Matt Stone comes with its own set of inherent obstacles. But when the Landless Theatre Company found itself without a director only three-and-a-half weeks before the opening night of its stage adaptation of Cannibal! The Musical, the D.C. purveyor of “theatre for the theatre-challenged” faced a challenge larger than it had expected.
Cannibal!’s D.C. stage premiere is the brainchild of Andrew Lloyd Baughman, a local actor and Landless Theatre Company’s de facto leader. A longtime South Park fan, Baughman saw in Cannibal! the perfect match for Landless—which, since its inception in 2003, has made its name serving up cultish plays and stage adaptations such as Frozty the Abominable Snowman and a rock opera based on Night of the Living Dead.
“Statistics show that the average theater patron is an aging or dying breed,” Baughman says. “We are dedicated to producing material that is exciting, unique, cutting-edge, cult, or just downright offensive.”
Cannibal! is based on the life of Alferd Packer, the infamous 19th-century prospector often mythologized as the only convicted cannibal in American history. Packer’s own story—he admits to eating his mining companions during the winter of 1873, although he claims to have killed only one of them (out of self-defense)—is pure stage gold, filled with courtroom drama and the macabre humor of cannibalism.
So, when Baughman lined up director Daniel Pruksarnukul—who had recently helmed a Middlebury College stage adaptation of Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film A Clockwork Orange—he figured he had the perfect match. Pruksarnukul, a rabid Parker and Stone fan, had “as deep an understanding of the play as possible,” Baughman says, adding that the directorial candidate seemed “most in touch” with the theater company’s intended audience of young 20-somethings. However, when a better paying gig in Utah opened up, Pruksarnukul bailed. “I waited too long to close the deal,” Baughman says.
For Baughman and his wife, the recent arrival of a baby girl meant no more full-time directing gigs. “If you want to devote your life to working in theater and have a family, you have to earn a living wage,” he says. With only weeks before opening night, Baughman asked local actor Chris Davenport to direct the show, which debuts Aug. 25 at the District of Columbia Arts Center.
When Davenport—whom Baughman says he originally passed on because “it almost seemed like a waste to use him on this particular show”—agreed to fill in, he wasn’t worried about the play’s laughably slap-dash production. In fact, he wanted to bring the audience in on the joke. During an early read-through, Davenport pitched several ideas to get the audience involved, such as giving the front row jugs of water to douse the actors with during the “rainstorm.” Davenport also plans to add a raw-meat raffle to the show.
“[The audience] understands that this is not a million-dollar production…nor would a million-dollar budget be appropriate for a play like this,” Davenport says. “A good deal of humor and fun can be drawn from that.” —Ian Martinez