Dishing It Out

Performance troupe Squonk's Bigsmorgasbordwunderwerk (P.S. 122) opens on all-you-can-eat night at the neighborhood buffet. Warily, a couple of would-be diners approach a banquet table that's wreathed in smoke. Atop the table lie four silver salvers, each differently ornamented: a hand clasping a fork, a tuba on the half shell, a fire-breathing dog, and some amalgam of an elephant and an airplane. When the diners lift the lids, each dish discloses substances distinctly unfoodlike. Then a fifth is brought out, topped by a unicorn with an eggbeater horn. The cover is removed to reveal . . . a ham? A roast? No, it's a human head— and it's singing. Whatever will Zagat's think?

This first tableau reveals the best and worst of what Squonk has to offer. Sometimes this musical-culinary puzzlement— a dialogue-free revue of sorts— is absurdly inspired, at other times just silly. The governing spirit of the show is playfulness, from the giddy tempo and style changes to cooking-themed songs such as "In the Kitchen of the Mountain King" and "Tines." Yet occasionally the "fun" misfires. While the five-member group demonstrates real virtuosity in playing their instruments (and what instruments! A wind synthesizer, an accordion, and a multi-pronged horn all make appearances), too often the musicians seem content to establish a theme and beleaguer it with repetition. And even their inventiveness can cloy, as when a trio of robots emerge from behind a clothesline of bodybags and proceed to tap dance.

Yet much can be forgiven upon witnessing the easy camaraderie the troupe members have with one another and their obvious delight in cooking up and serving their loopy cuisine. —Alexis Soloski


Puckish Behavior

The Shakespeare Project's A Midsummer Night's Dream, currently being mounted in parks around the city, is billed as a dark look under the fairy toadstool, where narcissism and sadism sprout o'er all. Well, it fails miserably— it's so damned likable. For starters, you'll probably be more tickled than chilled by Teri Maknausas's puppet fairies (under Ralph Lee's command). Sure, Titania's a lavender-faced hag and Oberon a gnarled lecher, but their wizened heads and long, graceful arms are carried aloft on sticks (by actors speaking their lines), while breezes waft their filmy, ragtag garments below the overhanging bowers. And such minor-league supernaturals as Cobweb and Mustardseed are fancifully embodied as rainbow poufs and wispy trails of feathers. Director Scott Cargle lunges for the slapstick with his befuddled lovers as well as with his dimwit players and frivolous sprites. Jennifer Tober's Helena is awash in sudsy sobs while Tracey Mitchell's Hermia alternates between stalwart and pygmy dynamo; Ben Lipitz's Bottom is as hammy an ass as could be dreamed. Only David Logan Rankin's Puck is misconceived— as a dissolute backwoods miscreant— although the same actor does an elegant turn in a tux as Philostrate. The company, which aims to make Shakespeare accessible to all, does so admirably, with the poetry clearly spoken and refreshed at intervals by Dawn Buckholz's enchanting xylophone melodies. It's a shame there were no lights, for the play's puppets could have sparkled more magically. As for bleakness at its core, this production's only darkness fell as the sun went down over the park— after those assembled on the grass had laughed heartily and well. —Francine Russo


A Broadway Pioneer

At the start of the New Federal Theatre's In Dahomey (Henry Street Settlement), an actor reminds the audience that what they're about to see is a bona fide landmark. The show, written in 1903 by composer Will Marion Cook and lyricist Paul Laurence Dunbar for the comedy team of Bert Williams and George Walker, was the first all-black Broadway musical. Director Shauneille Perry's updated revival is nothing more than a celebration of this fact, a respectful if slightly museumlike tribute to a breakthrough by African American artists on the not-incidentally-named Great White Way.

The lost book, which was essentially a vehicle for Williams and Walker's farcical shtick, has been recreated by Perry from existing plot outlines. Shylock (Brian Chandler) and Rareback (Keith Lee Grant), two struggling performers working as detectives, fall in love with the same girl, who shares their dream of making it big in show business. A far-fetched caper involving a prince takes the men to his African kingdom in Dahomey, where they encounter doubles of their friends and neighbors— and an exact replica of their joint sweetheart.

Perry's adaptation is probably no more sketchy than the original, but without seasoned clowns in the leads the script limitations are tough to get around. The production does, however, boast the presence of opera diva Shirley Verrett, who regally plays the ingenue's snobbish mother. While the cast on the whole is in excellent voice (and many of the songs retain their period charm), the acting varies in professional standard. Perry has clearly staged this as a labor of love, but without a transforming directorial concept the piece remains an exhibition of more historical than theatrical interest. —Charles Mcnulty

 
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