Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Petrified Forest (Strawdog Theater)

The cast of Petrified Forest poses for a picture

Strawdog Theatre Company is known far and wide for their immersive work and high quality productions. If you were ever telling some stranger from out of town about a place to go see a really great storefront show, Strawdog would undoubtedly cross your moistened lips.

Taking classic plays, or unknown little chestnuts and giving them new, unbridled life is the Strawdog calling card, so it should be no surprise to you or your family that they have decided to tackle a play from the 30's called "The Petrified Forest".

In 4th grade, my class had to write reports on National Parks. We were each assigned a different park and much to my disappointment, I got stuck with the boring ass Petrified Forest.

At the time, you have to understand, there was no "Internet" so trying to find any pictures of this place was almost impossible, but why?

The 1st and most obvious reason is because that is where alien spaceships land and the government doesn't want us to see what is really going on. The 2nd and less feasible reason is because no one really cares about Petrified Forest National Park.

So anyway, the point of me telling you that is because I don't want you to feel dumb when I start dropping all this knowledge on you. I am an expert, so please don't think I am showing off.

The Petrified Forest is this place in...I wanna say Wyoming where dinosaurs used to live and used to have all this grass. But then, a volcano or something happened and turned all the grass and trees and everything to rocks. Rocks!

So tourism is a very important industry in that part of the country because people from all over the world come to look at these rocks on the ground, or kill someone.

Now the play "The Petrified Forest" is about this little diner on the edge of the park where travelers going to the West Coast might stop from dinner or maybe some gasoline or a jar of liquor. The owner of this diner a guy who is clearly burdened with his old father that complains about everything and tells stories about when he was younger and was in the circus? Or was a cowboy? He also has his almost adult daughter named Gabby that wants to bang everybody.

Gabby takes care of the diner, while outside at the gas pump is a guy named Boze that used to be a football player in Nevada but probably wasn't really that good, but he still wears his jersey every day. Well, I bet you know that Gabby and Boze like to get it on from time to time behind the dad's back. I don't know what the dad thinks, I mean they are out in the middle of nowhere and his daughter is like, 19 years old. All she thinks about is doing it.

Well, one day this creep with a pencil thin mustache comes in and is all sweaty and orders some hamburgers and a beer. He starts talking in this crazy sort of British accent and smoking this cigarette thing.

Well, he's telling Gabby about how he is a roustabout (homeless bum) an how he is traveling to find himself. Well, of course, Gabby wants to bang this guy, too!

Which, by the way, doesn't make too much sense to me. Imagine if you were in the desert and a sweaty, homeless John Waters wandered into your little diner. Talking in his crazy accent about books and his ex-wife, would you want to sleep with him? No! You would be like, "Hey John Waters, why do you sound like that? You are from Baltimore. Why are you walking alone in the desert? Are you here to rape me?"

But not Gabby! Ooooh no, she has her own agenda! She wants to marry this guy and move to France or California or someplace and leave the football guy and Grandpa behind.

So at this point, about 50 minutes into the first act, you start thinking, "Wait, is this play just about people sitting around eating hamburgers? Because I know a great place to listen to weirdos and eat hamburgers for much less than $28 a ticket."

Then, just when you assume this love triangle and this tense cigarette smoking contest will never end, in busts some other guys! Duke Manatee and his gang of gun carrying outlaws are on the run from the law! They are here and they immediately shake things up by... also sitting down and having cigarettes and hamburgers? Yeah, I guess they do.

At intermission, I got to really take a look at the set and appreciate it. Strawdog has a history of making incredible sets that make you feel like a fly on the wall, and this was no exception. A bar and diner tables, surrounded by the beautiful vista of the Cartoon Mountain Range in the heart of America.

The lights went down and here comes the exciting and action filled second act! I could hardly contain myself! Surely this act had death and destruction in store!

The lights came up, and what was everyone doing onstage? You guessed it. Eating hamburgers and talking! "How much is the hamburger budget for this production?" I wondered. "It would be cheaper if they had just bought a whole cow and ground it up themselves."

Now, you and I both know that legendary director and boy wonder Shade Murray isn't just going to let this sitting around continue forever. He loves action and movement, and this work is no different. Without spoiling anymore of the play for you, let me tell you this: There are guns and blood and kissing and action and it all comes to an enthralling conclusion that will leave you gasping with delight and stir up a round of vigorous applause from your friends and lovers!

The performances in this show are the reason to go. Caroline Neff, once again saves a long first act by being girly and wearing an apron. She understands pace and tone better than most which if you didn't know, is WAY more important than "Being good at acting" (which she also is). Knowing how to carry a show is really a special skill that you don't find a lot in Chicago and Neff can do it, and that's why she is Storefront Prom Queen lately.

Shane Kenyon and Paul Fagen play the football player and the creep, respectively. Kenyon has a manly and somehow dark quality to him that you don't see a lot and is refreshing to see onstage and Fagen plays a possible pedophile with grace and dignity. OH! You know who Fagen's character reminds me of? The Shakespeare actor guy who is always eating eggs in "Bus Stop". You all did that play in college, right?

Good. Don't do it as a grown up because that play is stupid.

Jamie Vann leads the gang of criminals as the exceptional Duke Manteeth. A man with nothing to lose and a learned patience that is admirable. Vann always makes interesting choices that, as an actor, I enjoy because even when he plays bad guys or dads or whatever, he is very trustworthy or something. He has a quality to connect with others onstage and make them understand his objectives. I want to paint him.

John Moran and Adam Shalzi as grown up 'Our Gang' Members With Guns are very scary and nice to see together. These guys really love hamburgers.

There are so many standouts in the show that it is hard to even say they standout, because if everyone is good, then how do you know?

BUT, I loved Jim Poole and Janice O'Neil as some old fashioned rich guys and Mark Pracht as a construction worker or something.

Murray knows how to move lots of people around stage and how to build tension, however patient you need to be for it to happen. It will happen, by God and you will love it when it does.

Go out and see this!
Strawdog does cool stuff!


-Anderson Lawfer, Eric Roach


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