Aug. 27 2012 12:00 AM

Food-themed shows rise to the top


Last weekend’s Renegade Theatre Festival transformed Old Town into one big stage, as actors and actresses took over nine of the area’s businesses and empty spaces. With show names like “Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner,” “Comfort Food” and “Surviving Lunch,” we couldn’t help but notice a culinary theme. Overall, our judges thought this year’s batch of shows to be quite tasteful, but they did find a couple of them to be only half-baked.

Two-course meal

Rob Roznowski’s “Comfort Food” and Brad Rutledge’s “Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner” are two wildly divergent recipes for tasty theater performances. Rutledge’s piece, composed of three vignettes, were delicious morsels of spicy snack food, while Roznowski’s well-researched history of American cookbooks was a gourmet extravaganza of changing social attitudes mixed with a powerful feminist political agenda. Rutledge used the three-meal focus for observing the differences between love at the end of life, love in the middle of life, and love happening (or not) at the very first date. The tender moments trigger thoughts of whether one loves most intensely at first sight or at the moments closer to death. The focus of “Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner” is on the intimacy of the relationships — or lack of it — rather than the food itself. “Comfort Food,” on the other hand, explored the nuances of relationships through attitudes towards cooking and cookbooks over the ages and was a more fully fleshed out production. Tom Helma

“Working in Restaurants” 

Incest, rape, pedophilia and murder were on the menu for “Working in Restaurants,” a new performance dripping with juicy, gory banter. Although its production was a little rough around the edges, this roller coaster-meets-train wreck of a story exploring angst and loneliness kept you craving more. It bravely tackled taboo subjects, lacing in dark humor to balance the drama, making things fresh and amusing despite its depressing disposition. Tracy Key

“Based on a Totally True Story”

Solid directing and stellar performances far outweigh Robert Aguirre-Sacasa’s self-indulgent script. This is the tale of a young Manhattan playwright and the unlikely adaptation his play makes from stage to screen. It certainly offers some clever commentary on the inner workings of Hollywood, writers, and contemporary gay culture in the ultimate urban setting. Director Dennis Corsi and the cast provide earnestness and honesty to their roles, particularly in standout performances from Michael Hays, Angela Dill and Ricky Hernandez. Ultimately, Aguirre-Sacasa just assumes that the audience cares how his characters fare in his drawn out, conventional conclusion. Corsi and his cast actually ensure that you do. Paul Wozniak

“Think Tank”

Even the experts don’t have all the answers. “Think Tank” tackles life's mysteries, pushes its audience to examine the uncomfortable unknown. University of Michigan student and playwright Ben Blackman sets the scene with a group of professors waiting for a focus group to begin. A small conversation develops into musings, such as the meaning of life and debating death's origins. Michael Banghart turns in an understated performance as Ted, an everyman whose core sense of self and framework for humanity unfolds beyond his comprehension and control. Andrew Bailiff (who also directs) plays a pragmatic thinker, showcasing his comedic timing as well as his ability to delve into the brevity of our time on this planet. There is an existential element to “Think Tank,” and Blackman is clearly processing life's worth on stage. While the script builds initially, the end needs a little bit more polish to leave the audience still pondering their legacy rather than the last line of dialogue. Erin Buitendorp

“Long Gone: A Poetry Sideshow” 

Karrie Waarala’s intriguing performance in “Long Gone: A Poetry Sideshow” as Tess, a sharp-tongued, tattooed carny freak, was so genuine and emotional that it was easy to get swept away. Her witty sarcasm and poetic storytelling made the show a joy to watch, and when bolstered by a multimedia arrangement of photographs, video and voiceovers that brought Tess’ seedy memories to life, a real theatrical masterpiece was created. Tracy Key

“My Life”

Although he self-identifies as “disabled”, “My Life” writer/performer Timothy Lewis’ style and delivery are fully capable. Lewis was born with malformed, yet functional, arms and hands, and in this autobiographic monologue, he describes the struggles and self-defeating demons he experienced before embracing his passion to become an actor. The show’s strongest moment came at the end when Lewis returned to his script to share the pain of growing up without parents. Peppered with folksy asides and amusing anecdotes, “My Life” shows real potential for either public radio storytelling or the motivational speaker circuit. With more editing, polish and a clearer direction, this could be a confessional powerhouse. Paul Wozniak

“Tallulah in London”

Remember Tallulah Bankhead? Me neither, but Tom Klunzinger’s biographical musical clearly captured the outrageous life — and even more outrageous sex life — of the 20s-era Alabama-born actress who dazzled on the London stage and in early Hollywood movies. Demi Fragale played Bankhead, sadly singing her way through “Dance with the Doctor” (which referenced her multiple abortions) and the poignant “Marriage in the Moonlight,” which was the highpoint of the show. However, the point of this biographical story was sometimes fuzzy — was she a pioneer in the celebration of multi-sexuality or was she merely an exhibitionist, cartwheeling across the stage to demonstrate that she doesn’t wear underwear? Tom Helma

“The Big Bump”

"The Big Bump” should have been more like one of its own characters, a buxom puppet named Double Barrlin’ Marilyn. With her big booty and bodacious boobies, she “look the same comin’ as she does goin’.” Unfortunately, “The Big Bump” opened with a bang and went out with a whimper. The use of puppets provided an absurdly refreshing take on the Blaxploitation genre, and the performance was oozing with personality, attitude and soul. The impact of combining elements of children’s puppet theater with racy, ghetto-appropriate adult language and content was preposterously pleasing, but the show’s abrupt ending cut the pleasure short. Ultimately it felt like 30 minutes of foreplay without a climax — excuse me while I finish into a sock puppet. Tracy Key

“Danny and the Deep Blue Sea”

In “Danny and the Deep Blue Sea,” two scarred humanoid creatures arise from the darkest depths of an urban ghetto ocean, crashing to the surface to suddenly see the possibility of light in their limited lives. Danny and Roberta are damaged, dysfunctional ghetto rats, beaten down by their circumstances, by themselves, and by pretty much everyone they have other known. Act I is a no-holds-barred boxing match, as the two characters circle each other, spitting out vulgar invectives and searching for a vulnerability to exploit. Act II, however, provides a transformative miracle, which, although satisfying to see, seems too abrupt. These two exquisitely fine actors transition from raging, murderous violence to intimate tender loving vulnerability in a single moment, but this kind of conversion is simply not going to happen. Tom Helma

“Least I Could Do” 

“Careful how you give it away,” said playwright Paul Bourne at the talkback for his play, “Least I Could Do.” Performed under the Renegade Now umbrella of new scripts in the workshop phase, “Least I Could Do” pulls at the heartstrings and is open to interpretation. Two brothers, Hal, a dreamer/artist, and Ed, a more practical type trying to balance his fatherly duties, volley their discourse, with the lyrical prose of Simon & Garfunkel wafting in the distance. The script centers on the familial relationship and director, Ann Marie Foley lets her actors cut up with natural affection and small jibes on each other leading to a twist ending. With some fine-tuning, “Least I Could Do” has the potential to resonate. Erin Buitendorp

“Ludlow Fair

Lanford Wilson’s one-act vignette peeks into the Brooklyn apartment of two female roommates preparing for bed. Rachel (Rachel Mender) thinks she’s crazy for dumping her loser boyfriend, while Agnes (Rebecca Lane) ensures Rachel she did the right thing. Lane’s dry delivery gave her snarky dialogue a satisfying comic crackle, and Mender played well off of Lane. Why director Leo Puroshin thinks that Rachel would apply a full face of makeup before heading to bed is unclear, but maybe nothing in this slice-of-life scene needs to be. Paul Wozniak

“Surviving Lunch"

It seems ironic to pick on a performance about the issue of bullying in schools, but “Surviving Lunch” was practically begging someone to give it a swirly. There was an overwhelming sense of awkwardness between lines — some actors actually appeared to be reading from cheat sheets — which the performers seemed painfully aware of. There was still a meaningful message about speaking out against bullying, but having the former Chrome Cat as its venue also worked against the show. Horrible acoustics and the long, narrow seating arrangement rendered portions of the performance incomprehensible. Tracy Key