Dallas — It’s not as if they didn’t have fair warning, right? The signs—the omens—were there, after all, for those who chose to look. Though at first glance, the framing device of Kitchen Dog Theater’s fast-paced, funny Pompeii!! —a family-run vaudeville troupe skewering the willfully ignorant residents of doomed Pompeii through song-and-dance—may seem like an odd, arbitrary choice. But once the show places its vaudevillian performers firmly at the tail end of 1929, just before the Great Stock Market Crash, and the looming years of the Great Depression, the show’s message for the audience of the present comes into focus: There’s always a volcano waiting for us somewhere, and these days it’s not a question of if one will spell our doom—it’s a question of which of many will be the one that takes us down, and whether we’ll be any better at spotting the signs.
Just briefly, for those non-history buffs out there (and Kitchen Dog has made good use of LMDA Bly Dramaturg Fellow Haley Nelson in putting together a quick-and-dirty, but very informative, lobby display covering Pompeii, the 1920s, and vaudevillian tropes for just that demographic): Pompeii, sitting in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, was a swinging resort town back in the early A.D.s—a port city with excellent farmland, where wealthy Romans built massive villas to avoid the heat and stench of Roman summers. But it didn’t take a soothsayer to realize that the party couldn’t last. Vesuvius, a perpetually active volcano, had erupted numerous times over the centuries, and indeed when Pompeii was finally obliterated in 79 A.D., they hadn’t even finished reconstructing the town after a massive earthquake destroyed most of it in 62 A.D. Some people just can’t take a hint.
Same for America in 1929; the vaudevillians mocking the Pompeiians for their obliviousness might’ve wanted to read a newspaper—following a stock market crash in London a few months earlier, investors warned that all the signs for a big American crash were there (steel production down, construction sluggish, high consumer debt due to easy credit—any of this ringing a bell?). But no one could believe the market could go anywhere but up, and on Oct. 24, 1929, the market nosedived, investors jumped from skyscraper windows, and the American economy (not to mention the global economy, with few exceptions) plunged into the Great Depression. Clearly, the show prompts, go ahead and draw whichever parallels to the present time really stirs your coffee—looming environmental disasters, economic overconfidence in the market, or what have you. The signs are all there.
Pompeii!!—note the two exclamation points—is the brainchild of three Kitchen Dog company members—Cameron Cobb, directing the piece, Michael Federico, and Max Hartman, doing double-duty as both the show’s music director and the star and MC of the show. Kitchen Dog has had a tumultuous few years—the company lost its performance space of 20 years in 2015 and although they’ve purchased a warehouse space in Dallas, substantial (and expensive) renovations are required before they can move in. Kitchen Dog always ends its season with its New Works Festival, with one world premiere full production and several staged readings on dark days. This year it’s doing things differently, with the new work—its first company-created musical—preceding an upcoming, expanded series of staged readings to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the New Works Festival.
Not only has Pompeii!! garnered national attention, and one of ten inaugural Dramatist Guild Foundation Writers Alliance Grants, the choice to use vaudeville to tell Pompeii!!’s story gives its talented performers multiple avenues to strut their stuff. They sing, they dance, they play instruments, they clown; there’s even some sleight of hand (very, very slight).
Max Hartman as “Second Time” Sammy Mulligan does it all, as any good MC must—he sings and dances, charms and (at times) menaces, and gives some truly fantastic moustache. And the rest of the cast works equally hard, carrying off multiple roles without missing a step. Steph Garrett and Dennis Raveneau charm as silent, white-gloved clowns who may be the only people onstage who truly know what’s coming; when Raveneau’s clown character takes a turn near the end of the show, he brings a mournful gravitas to his final musical number. Garrett and Marti Etheridge have a Lucy-and-Ethel via Long Island vibe as switchboard operators on Mount Olympus directing prayers (the unconcerned flailing at the switchboard employed by both women is a particularly funny running gag).
Jo-Jo Steine and Jeff Swearingen adeptly portray bickering couple Doris and Harold, who wed in haste and are repenting at a less than leisurely pace, with a very funny Swearingen showing especial skill at “bad” vaudeville—one character he portrays (keeping things vague to avoid spoiling the surprise) practically steals the show through his total ineptitude. Steine also deserves special mention for her more-than-passable skills on the viola. Thiago X. Nascimento and Ian Ferguson are the other Mulligan brothers, and make up the rest of the band; Ferguson has several nice turns, funny as the screeching, effete Emperor Vespasian and brash and at turns thoughtful as a blue-collar Irishman named Mickey just trying to make an honest living. Parker Gray plays several roles well, but shines as a truly pathetic stand-up roped into trying out new material.
The songs are catchy, and the choreography by Jeremy Dumont keeps things loose and playful. But although the show is most definitely a comedic satire, there’s a vein of real dread running underneath, reinforced by the wheel of fortune packed with options like “fire arrows,” “annihilation,” and “extinction,” with just a thin chance at landing on “hope.” The show also boasts a pretty realistic rumbling volcano—you feel the vibrations beneath your chair—which keeps the sense of menace present throughout.
We’re never too far from the volcano’s edge, and the signs really are there, for those who bother to look. We won’t, of course—we never do; that’s the point. With a twinkle in his eye, Sammy invites the audience following the final devastation to, “Come back for the late show, folks, where we do it all again!” Darkly funny with a beating heart underneath, Kitchen Dog Theater had the good sense to hang on to the courage of their convictions and take a risk with Pompeii!! We, the lucky audience, get to reap the benefits.