Fort Worth — On a warm summer’s twilight west of Fort Worth, Hip Pocket Theatre ponders the verities with its entrancing In Watermelon Sugar, directed and adapted by John Murphy from the 1960s novel by Richard Brautigan of Trout Fishing in America fame. There’s something hand-in-glove about the work of the 1960s counter-cultural author/poet outsider being produced by the Metroplex’s nonconformist theatre outpost. It doesn’t get more authentic. (This is the fifth time Hip Pocket has done this title in its 41 years, although the first time to use Murphy's adaptation.)
The evening begins with drinks and live music while everyone waits for the sky to darken. The audience is called into the outdoor theatre by cowbell. The expansive set by James Maynard flows seamlessly from the weathered bleacher seating. It’s a good idea to bring a seat cushion, for you or to offer to someone else. It’s that kind of crowd and that kind of show. Stick around afterwards for music, drinks and discussion about the show.
Jeff Stanfield plays “The Man Without a Regular Name.” He’s our interpreter and chronicler of the commune iDeath that has sprung up outside of the “forgotten works,” an abandoned factory. Though it is never explicitly explained, we are in a post-apocalyptical, Garden of Eden world. It will be familiar to anyone who’s yearned for a societal reset switch where the resources are rich and the work is honest.
Stanfield keeps a steady hand on the wheel of his character. His delivery is always gentle and sustained like a bedtime story. The most upset he gets is when Margaret (Rebo Hill) steps on a squeaky board of the bridge to his dwelling. She’s his ex. So, there’s some history. His current paramour, Pauline (Christina Cranshaw), cooks for the commune. They worry about how their relationship will affect Margaret, but persist regardless. Lighting designer Nikki DeShea Smith springs the different locations to life as Stanfield encounters them.
This is about the level of tension in their idyllic world.
There used to be more trouble: magic talking tigers. Brian Cook puppets the James Maynard creations with two distinct voices. Some of the residents remember those days. Our narrator lost his parents to them, in fact. In this meditation of the simple life, death is never far away. They have tombs under the water that glow with foxfire and are visited by trout (another visual triumph of puppetry).
It’s a lyrical world in which people are respectful of their elders like Old Chuck (Thad Isbell) and Charley (Quentin McGown). Fred (Nick Gilley) and Al (William Bull) work concentrating the watermelon juice into different colors of sugar depending on the color of the sun that day.
But every Eden must have its serpent.
Ryan Seale plays InBoil with an unbalanced ferocity that pierces the utopian reverie. He’s a former member of the commune who has taken up residence in the forgotten works with his gang played by humorous henchmen played by Cook, and Damek and Derek Salazar. Their intrusion is as unexpected and unexplainable as any other act of random violence. The ripples of their action are seen by our narrator in the Statue of Mirrors played by Elysia Worcester.
And then the play ends.
It’s a tight 70 minutes that will stay with you for the week. Questions of community versus isolation and industry versus innocence will flow into the gaps of your typical errands and tasks.
Like watermelon sugar.