The revival of this gender-play comedy still tastes freshly squeezed
Reviewed by Adam Roberts, Fri., Sept. 16, 2011
MilkMilkLemonadeThe Hideout Theatre, 617 Congress
Through Sept. 25
Running time: 1 hr., 20 min.
Bumper stickers proclaim it and T-shirts mandate it; even books raise the cry. But if actions speak louder than words, the kids at Shrewd Productions are playing their part, too, and in a big way: They're keeping Austin weird – very, very weird – by once again serving up a tall pitcher of their delicious MilkMilkLemonade.
The Shrewds first produced Joshua Conkle's not-so-absurdist, down-on-the-farm romp through gender last year at the Vortex, prompting one to wonder whether those lemons still taste freshly squeezed. Worry not – the spontaneity in this new barnyard is at once uproarious and stinging. And the Shrewds aren't really kids – they just play them here: two kids, in fact, along with an instigating granny, a narrator/spider/evil parasitic twin, and a chicken named Linda who yearns for the spotlight of stand-up comedy but is destined instead for a fate far worse than a hissing audience ... maybe. It depends on how you look at it.
This is exactly the message that Conkle's comedy achieves under the Shrewd direction of Jason Hays. When gender is at play – or in this case, the play – everything depends on how we look at it. Although the production doesn't relieve itself from the burden of heavy-handed dialogue and some awkward moments of staging until about a quarter of the way through, once it's off and running, there's no stopping the deft cast from playing the game to the fullest. Take, for instance, the ultrafabulous performance of Michael Slefinger as Emory, a gay 11-year-old choreographer of ribbon dances, and Chris Hejl, who plays his rough-and-tumble bully, Elliot, to a T. Shannon Grounds' ability to turn on a dime from one of her characters to the next is equally impressive.
However, the truly outstanding performances here belong to Chris Humphrey – Emory's viperous, gay-bashing Nanna – and Joe Hartman, whose Linda carries with her all of the nuanced flair and pathos for which one could hope. Humphrey and Hartman share an especially impressive facility for physical acting and vocal prowess (besides far too much makeup for the Hideout's very intimate Backstage theatre). When I think back on the show, it is their performances that spring to mind most vividly, though each member of the cast is truly strong, heartfelt, and entirely believable, without a weak link in the chain.
The usual problem with attending a play in the Hideout's Backstage space plays its own role, too, with otherwise effective moments of poignancy interrupted by noise from the crowded coffee shop just beyond the doors. And though bargain-priced production values do peek through at times, it's actually endearing here. Nick Renaud's set – complete with construction paper chickens, Velcro decor, and smart choices for compact efficiency – creatively makes its own statement without distracting from the focus of the action.
Things don't turn out well for everyone in Conkle's play. There are sacrifices. We're made to think about the realities of the gendered world in which we live and interact, but the play is anything but preachy. Life hands us its lemons, and for the next two weekends, the smart choice is to make MilkMilkLemonade.