Dallas — October is the right time for a collection of short plays based on fairytales and folklore, conjuring images of dark forest trails, witches, ravenous beasts, caldrons and situations where bad things happen to bad people—and to the not-so-bad ones. We’ve seen the Disneyfied versions, but in the original stories the ugly stepsisters get their eyes pecked out by birds, and the selfish mermaid dissolves into foam.
The Drama Club’s Wild, Wicked, Wyrd: Fairytale Time is those things, dark and filled with morals we don’t always want to hear. It’s also something unexpected: funny. Really, really, really funny.
And as is typical with these Club kids, design is witty and imaginative.
WWW is four works by three playwrights and two directors. Christie Vela directs Just Desserts by her husband John M. Flores and Michael Federico’s Mother Holly. Jeffrey Schmidt takes on Flores’ Lighter Than Air and Maryam Obaidullah Baig’s Jo Chaho Tum.
Schmidt also designed the set, which is dominated by three giant W’s lit in red that also function as ladders and platforms and storage for hidden surprises. A large curtain on a wire is dragged across the stage to act as a proscenium arch in Mother Holly and for the shadow puppetry in Jo Chaho Tum. Lighting, important in a show with fantastical and spooky elements, is by Amanda West. Outrageously clever costumes are by Korey Kent, who really outdoes himself in Lighter Than Air with two colorful, scaly fish and a pelican with a large droopy orange scarf as the bill. Props are by Lydia Mackay, and are especially slick (and sick) in Just Desserts.
The excellent ensemble of Nicole Berastequi, Marti Etheridge, Aubrey Ferguson, Delaney Milbourn and Kia Nicole play multiple roles: women, men, otherworldly beings and animals. These plays call for a variety of performance styles and techniques, and they’re all up for the challenge.
Michael Federico’s Mother Holly is the most straightforward of these imaginings. The original Brothers Grimm story (Mother Holle) tells of two sisters of different personalities who each gain something unexpected after they separately spend time with a mysterious old woman (always code for “witch”). The industrious one is rewarded with a realization of her potential, which results in financial success for her mother’s nightclub (Ferguson’s voice is a stunner). The lazy sister gets her comeuppance.
The original story involves an oven full of bread in the forest, which Federico turns into a man made of bread (Nicole). In Grimm, the reward involves a spindle, but those are played out. Federico’s adaptation keeps the concept of working and surviving. Leave it to a theatermaker to comment on the idea that being an artist is a legit career plan—and success doesn’t happen without hard work.
Jo Chaho Tum is Baig’s take on the 18th century Pakistani tale Masnavi Sihr Ul Bayaan by Urdu poet and writer Mir Hasan. Baig's title comes from a song by Pakistani musician Nusrat Hussain. Baig, who is from Pakistan and has made her home in Dallas, brings her Texas experience into this adaptation, via Whataburger and beginning with the characters as boot-wearing yokels—and one goth kid. There’s always an outsider.
Berastequi, Etheridge and Ferguson serve as narrators when the Urdu story unfolds, using shadow puppetry and Nicole as a live actor interacting with the puppets. The puppetry design is gorgeous, and the voices fun (as one character, Etheridge sounds like Bobby from King of the Hill). All of the stories in WWW involve eating/food (or cannibalism), and here there’s a pomegranate that, like the fruit in the Garden of Eden, opens up the mind. To some, that is dangerous.
The press materials and interviews for this production note that Flores’ stories come from Mayan mythology and elsewhere. I’m guessing that Lighter Than Air is the selection of Mayan origin, as it uses a pelican (Berastequi) to deliver the crushing blow in a tale of trust between sisters Leah (Milbourn) and Luna (Etheridge), who are fish connected to each other in a way beyond a sisterly bond. Pelicans, like other birds, were considered magical creatures, and would have been plentiful in the Mayan kingdom on the Yucatan peninsula.
As mentioned before, design is tops in this one. Bubbles from the ceiling contribute to the underwater milieu, as does the mobile of empty receptacles and other trash (please recycle!). It’s the first show in this collection, and a perfect little appetizer (or fish course?) for the entrees and dessert to come.
Flores’ other contribution, the final and very delicious bite, is appropriately called Just Desserts. The inspiration for this piece is unclear, but I’d venture that it’s something like Ren & Stimpy or Itchy and Scratchy. Cartoons are a different kind of fairytale. And both of those cartoons (cartoon within a cartoon for Itchy and Scratchy) come with a potent blend of sick humor and gore, something Flores and Vela both love.
Etheridge is a Bear and Milbourn a Rabbit who have competing restaurants. Their cupboards are bare, but when a famished customer shows up (Nicole, in Lady Gaga-as-socialite mode), Bear and Rabbit outdo—and undo—themselves in a battle to serve her the very best meal. It’s like Saw meets Delicatessen meets the most twisted, gory, scatological episode of Chopped ever.
And it’s freaking hysterical.
It’s all enhanced by an original sound and music score by Flores and Jim Kuenzer, as JIMJOHNMAKENOISE. In the transitions between the two shows in each act, Flores and Kuenzer engage the audience from stage right, under a Whataburger canopy. Kuenzer’s impersonation of Radiohead’s “Fitter Happier” is pretty funny if you get the reference.
You don’t have to get the references in Wild, Wicked, Wyrd, however, to leave sore from laughter and maybe a little nauseous (in a good way) from that final dose of blood and scat—and not the Ella Fitzergald kind. Not to mention with a greater appreciation for artists who make entertaining and visually awesome theater like no one else in town.
» WWW runs in repertory with Terry Vandivort's The Incident (our review is here)
» Read our Work in Progress column about WWW, which closes with a Halloween party on Oct. 29