Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Santaland Diaries and The Loush Sisters: Making the Yuletide Gay (We’ll Pass on the Fruitcake), PlayhouseSquare

(Kevin Joseph Kelly as Crumpet)

The Santaland Diaries is the most accidental of Christmas traditions. The author of the original material, renowned essayist and humorist David Sedaris, never wanted his words to be rejiggered for the stage. Still, it happened, with Joe Mantello doing the adaptation, and the rest is history.

That history is now being revisited once more at PlayhouseSquare in the 14th Street Theatre. This time around, Santaland is sharing the stage with The Loush Sisters as a second act treat, both directed by Elizabeth Wood and produced by Raymond Bobgan and the Cleveland Public Theatre..

In Santaland, Sedaris writes about his tenure as a paid elf named Crumpet at Macy’s during the holiday season. This is not a happy elf, mind you, but an elf that wallows in all the excesses and absurdities of his job dealing with aggressive parents. vomiting kids, and an array of dysfunctional Santas.

There have been several iterations of Crumpet the Elf in these parts, but nobody has come close to matching the elfin-voiced charm and subversive edge that Curtis Proctor brought to the role more than ten years ago.

Nobody, that is, until Kevin Joseph Kelly, who is the sole performer in this production. Even though Kelly is large both physically and vocally, not exactly typecasting, he works from the neurotic characteristics of the narrator to create this cynical, acid-tongued gnome from hell. And he’s frequently hilarious.

From the initial job interview process to his final “Christmas miracle” moment of insight, Kelly smoothly delivers these gaily-wrapped goods (emphasis on the “gay”). When not pining after his co-elf heartthrob Snowball (plus a couple gentlemen in the audience), Kelly’s Crumpet is on target. And he deftly handles all the choppy moments in a script that sounds more like a real diary than a polished monologue.

After intermission, The Loush Sisters arrive in the persons of Liz Conway and Sheffia Randall Dooley. This fast-paced half-hour of mangled Christmas carols, weirdly appropriate pop songs and snappy dialogue is a nice follow-up to Kelly’s one-man show.

Written by Conway, Wood and musical director Michael Seevers, Jr., this is essentially a throwaway piece of holiday hoo-hah. But Conway and Dooley make you glad they throw it your way.

The two performers adopt a hybrid version of the overlapping conversation style made famous by the two SNL ladies in the NPR cooking show parody “The Delicious Dish.” (Here’s their famous holiday time “Schweddy Balls” skit.) But they amp it up to 10,000 rpm as they strafe the audience with rapid-fire song medleys and a fractured storyline about their mom (the aforementioned Kelly, now in drag).

It all makes no sense whatsoever but it works because Conway is a hot-wired, surefire presence on stage—probably funnier right now that any other woman in the current SNL cast except for Kristen Wiig. And Dooley holds her own, generating chuckles and using her better singing voice to anchor the duets.

All in all, it’s a blast of an evening that should become its own tradition.

The Santaland Diaries and The Loush Sisters: Making the Yuletide Gay (We’ll Pass on the Fruitcake)

Through December 17 at PlayhouseSquare, the 14th Street Theatre, 2067 E. 14th St., Cleveland, 216-241-6000

Friday, December 2, 2011

Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant, Cleveland Public Theatre

(Mrs. Robinson, about to do things with an electric mixer that would make Betty Crocker faint face-first into her apple cobbler.)

Yes, it has landed again: the weirdest, tastiest and most depraved group dining experience since Caligula stopped serving piping hot virgins to his dinner guests.

Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant, now at Cleveland Public Theatre, is back for its second year of elegantly calibrated insanity. It’s a show accompanied by a five-course dinner served by nine actors, but that doesn’t come close to describing the overall impact of this experience.

This year there are a couple new personnel additions to the Conni cabal. But clearly, no one among the returning cast has mellowed in the past 12 months. And that's a good thing.

The New York City-based performing company comes in to provide this crazed concoction, presenting a volley of set pieces interspersed with continuous interaction with the audience.

If you like up close and personal theater, this is just the ticket. On opening night, Mrs. Robinson (a male British rocker) swapped pants with a female patron. And that probably isn’t the most intimate exchange between audience and cast that took place. (What happens in Conni’s Restaurant, yadda yadda…)

No actors are identified by their actual names in the program, and every audience member is invited to choose a fake name-tag (ie. “Not-So-Tiny Tim,” etc.) that protects their identity as well. With anonymity firmly in place, everyone can just relax and plug into the subversive energy of this four hour wack-fest.

Songs are performed, sung particularly well by the exotic-looking Mr. X and restaurant general manager Sue James (probably not her real name, but who knows?). She also does a mean "dance of the seven kitchen utensils."

Each course of food is introduced via one form of hilarious mock-pageantry or another, then served family-style at long tables. The grub itself, cooked on the premises, ranges from wonderful (curried butternut squash soup) to filling (thick slabs of turkey with cranberry compote). Also served are foccacia appetizers topped with ricotta, honey and pumpkin seeds; a roasted brussels sprouts salad; side dishes of mashed potatoes and sugared carrots; and a drunken chocolate bundt cake for dessert.

In between the noshing, a pregnancy is transferred from one young woman to another, a pants-less doctor and his volley of nurses provide questionable medical assistance, and a good ol’ boy bartender runs a “Bus Your Table” contest where customers compete to win a champagne-drenched “palate cleansing” interlude. Yeah, don't ask.

Frankly, there are far too many elements in this borderline psychotic extravaganza to enumerate here. Suffice to say you have never experienced anything like it. You will laugh, except when your jaw is hanging agape in amazement. And you will not leave hungry--for food (taking seconds are encouraged), or for wine (three bottles allocated for each ten-person table), or for an ample quota of certifiable strangeness.

And once you do attend, you will pine for the return of CAGR next year like a three-year-old waiting for Santa Claus.

Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant

Through December 18 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727