It's time, once again, to be amused, shocked, and educated into humility by adults playing characters who are children, so who better than Louis Farber, who played the title role in NewBrave Theatre's Mr. Marmalade, to direct MilkMilkLemonade for Stray Cat Theatre?
Every performer in this show is playing something they don't identify as in real life: young adults playing 11-year-olds, a young man playing an old lady, a woman playing a chicken, and a man playing someone who has breasts and long, luxuriant blond hair. (Not that a man can't have those things.) This kind of levels the playing field and spreads the virtuosity around, but it also clarifies and illustrates the script's theme.
Our hero, Emory (Kaleena Newman), wants what everyone wants -- to be himself and not get a lot of crap about it. Others try to insult him by pointing out that he acts like a girl or that he must be gay. He's resigned to living with that, for the time being, in order to be true to his own feelings. Emory enjoys the simple things: playing with his Barbie, talking with Linda the chicken (Molly Kurtz) on his Nanna's farm, dreaming of reality-show fame and Broadway stardom.
Everybody from Nanna (Sam Wilkes) to the messed-up boy down the road (Rod Amez) gives Emory grief about his behavior, but, although his surging hormones are a complication, he's determined to keep being Emory. The meta-play is that the actors don't have to "try" to be something they aren't, either. They just are, and it's way satisfying, largely because you aren't prompted to think about it all the time.
Playwright Joshua Conkel subtly gives each character a fully rounded personality (even though the play is just over an hour long and is not entirely realistic in structure), so you can feel for Nanna, neighbor Elliot, and even Greek chorus figure Lady in a Leotard (Michael Thompson), who pitches in not just to narrate, but to perform the doll's swan song ("I've Never Been to Me"), translate Linda's clucks, voice the subliminal urgings of Elliot's alleged parasitic twin, and perform a marvelous spider puppet and other special effects.
The humor here is mostly not a crazy relentless clusterfuck, but the performances and direction are so honest and unselfconscious that you don't have to stop feeling sad or frustrated or angry in order to laugh. That's very cool.
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For example, Kurtz is a lovely chicken with a great costume and a believable demeanor. Her entire presence in the plot is just silly, and yet the reality that she can't escape death forever and, for that matter, neither can Nanna, is given respect, even as the chicken farm resembles a kindergarten pageant set (thanks to David J. Castellano) and Alfredo Macias' prop design adds more layers that are irresistibly overdone and funny.
So has it sunk in yet, beloved fellow-audience, how many versions of A Christmas Story and A Christmas Carol are on local stages this year? (Not to mention Nutcrackers, not all of which, oddly, are ballets.) They're like chain restaurants out there. While you're deciding which, if any, to see (and we'll help as much as we can) -- or in between multiple chestnuts, if that's your cup of tea -- trot out and see MilkMilkLemonade to cleanse your palate.
MilkMilkLemonade continues through Saturday, December 17, at Tempe Performing Arts Center, 132 East Sixth Street. Admission is $15 to $25 (except Thursday evening, which is $10 for students with ID, and Sunday afternoon, which is $12 for everyone). Order tickets here, or call 480-634-6435 for more information.