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“We ate our baby,” says a brightly smiling Mormon couple at the start of playwright Ian Allen’s latest grotesquerie for Cherry Red Productions. “What’s more, we feel no remorse.”
Sounds as if somebody’s a tad defensive, no?
Baked Baby, the chirpily deplorable little comic sketch that premiered last weekend at the District of Columbia Arts Center, means to be outrageous in the manner of such previous Cherry Red productions as Cannibal Cheerleaders on Crack, Angel Shit, and Savage Pieta. Not having caught those earlier epics, I can’t comment on whether Baby’s script or staging—the troupe’s specialties include under-table fellatio and vomiting on cue—represent any major advances. But, clearly, there’s an aesthetic at work.
Let’s note, however, that being outrageous isn’t as easy as it was even five years ago, when Red popped its cherry. Baked Baby’s patrons, if they turned on Saturday Night Live when they got home from the theater, could have caught a sketch about a salivary-glandless guy whose parents chewed his food for him and then, much to the consternation of his girlfriend, spat it into his mouth. Repeatedly. At length. With close-ups.
If that’s what network television is serving up, it’s legitimate to ask how far a theater troupe specializing in outrage needs to go to justify the price of a ticket and the hassle of parking. It probably needs to go further than anyone’s going in Baked Baby, though the author (who is also Cherry Red’s artistic director) certainly throws plenty of disreputable stuff into his mix.
He starts with Susan (Fiona Blackshaw) and Don (Juuso Linnoila), the folks whose son is basting in the oven as the lights come up. They’re materialistic Brigham Young University grads who apparently bristled at the push they got from parents and pastor to be fruitful and multiply the Mormon fold. So when a car crash left them alone in the world, except for a Granny (Jean Hudson Miller) who’s very nearly ’round the bend, they decided that their quickest route to the American dream was to become fine young cannibals, record a video for posterity, and book passage to childless anonymity on foreign shores. Alas, just as they’re about to dig into Junior and depart for Morocco, Elders Clark (Paul Menard) and White (Joshua Barrett) show up. These smirking, barely-in-the-closet Mormon missionaries have come bearing homilies and healthy appetites. Granny invites them for dinner, places are set for five instead of three, and much body-fluid smearing, shirt removing, and exorcising ensues.
While Allen’s script is situationally imaginative, it’s not written with punch lines so much as with lines that can be easily punched up. In Paul Donnelly’s energetically tasteless staging, the playing is consequently broad and the volume considerable—which is pretty much what’s required. Still, no one’s tapped into a mother lode of hilarity, mostly because Baked Baby has perhaps 20 minutes of sharp material about religion, child rearing (in every conceivable sense), materialism, and gender issues, which it spreads over about 90 minutes of playing time.
It’s customary when confronted with a show of this sort to suggest that it is guaranteed either to amuse or to annoy any patrons it manages to attract. My guess is that Baked Baby will do both.
So will Forever Ivor, though not nearly as vividly.xxxxxxxxxxxxx
Interact Theatre Company’s docu-revue about Ivor Novello, a theatrical songwriter once regarded in lyric-deaf circles as Noel Coward’s equal, is a wanly elegant affair that also boasts a running time several times longer than is justified by its material.
Novello, as Nick Olcott’s script never seems to tire of pointing out, was an early-20th-century champion of treacly love ballads—the sort of ditties for which “My Life Belongs to You” or “We’ll Gather Lilacs” seem altogether appropriate titles. Both of those songs are in Forever Ivor’s second act—not to be confused with “Love Is My Reason” and “My Dearest Dear,” in its first—and I challenge anyone not actually involved in the show to hum three bars of any of them. Even sung with brio by Interact’s capable cast, they’re quintessentially forgettable—nondescript lyrics fitted to melodies that burble along uneventfully—the musical equivalent of a babbling brook.
On occasion, Novello penned something more clever (“And Her Mother Came, Too”) or more memorable (“Keep the Home Fires Burning”)—which is presumably why people compare him to Coward. But for the most part, he was just prolific, composing dozens of musical shows in which, as one ’20s critic noted, “the tongue never visibly approaches the cheek.”
Olcott quotes that line—which means he anticipates the audience’s likely reaction to material this bland. But neither he nor the staging tries very hard to illuminate the songs with irony.
Speaking of not illuminating things, it’s been years since I’ve seen a professional production in which the principals were so ineptly lit. The directors keep having performers step down from the stage into shadows just as they begin to sing, or requiring them to croon from atop a murky bar at stageside. And even when a performer plants himself firmly in one location onstage, the lighting designers have trouble brightening him up. The second act’s first ditty is sung by a guy whose face is lit primarily by the glare from his tuxedo shirt, which is precisely centered in a blazing spotlight. (In fairness, he’s no worse off than Novello himself: A portrait of the composer hangs on a wall to the right of the stage with only his forehead lit.)
Other technical elements are more capably handled. Carl F. Gudenius drapes enough white fabric over the Old Vat Room’s dark paneling to turn the space into a reasonably persuasive deco club. And musical director Larry Vote does a fine job at the piano, decorating Novello’s melodies with ornate enough flourishes that, on occasion, it almost sounds as if something’s going on. CP