Like Our Parents Smoking
at Cafe Voltaire
By Carol Burbank
It had been a Thursday from purgatory: complacent, un-eventful, and boring. In my tedium-induced somnolence, I could think of only the most obvious cures: great, loud indiscreet sex or a bonk on the head with a big rubber hammer. I couldn’t have predicted that Nomenil would provide both–kind of–in their bizarre yet nightmarishly beautiful lip-synch musical Like Our Parents Smoking Cornsilk, written by company members Courtney Evans and Allen Conkle.
Indescribable narrative excesses delightfully pose as a plot in Cornsilk. In my post-Nomenil delirium, I can only characterize it as a hybrid of an old Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney let’s-put-on-a-show-and-save-the-farm musical and some drag queen’s embellished description of a tacky late-night movie.
The heroine, played with doll-like plasticity by Debi Bradshaw, is an ultralonghaired lesbian named Beth who travels through an Oz-influenced Chicago landscape searching for a place to dance. Everyone she meets is either deformed, desperately stupid, or desperately, stupidly deformed. They’re not “differently abled,” not “handicapped,” not even “crippled”; Nomenil’s characters are parodies of parodies. Impossible creatures from the multimedia imaginations of Gen-Xers, they’re so bad they’re good.
Evans and Conkle create believable–if excessive–characters, developing a focused and intense idiocy that camps up the melodramatic stereotypes of hapless victims and diseased outcasts. Cast members also combine techniques from the Three Stooges with drag flirtatiousness to add more lighthearted playfulness, sometimes wearing their roles so loosely they seem like children playing dress up. This mix of goofiness and overkill frees the audience and the performers from conventional limitations and makes even the most disgusting plot twists seem plausible.
Beth meets a thalidomide-flippered lesbian rodeo star, a gay man with breasts larger than Dolly Parton’s, a three-man glee club dressed like fey superheroes, a street gang that divides its time between arcane tortures and chasing the Good Humor truck to buy ice cream. Any of the denizens of this camp dream landscape can burst into lip-synched song at any moment. They fight and think and talk in snips of popular music from musicals, disco, and bubblegum rock and roll, breaking into goofy dances and divalike postures without warning.
Here’s a sample. When Beth arrives at a home for wayward women, the matron sings Glinda’s song “Come Out, Come Out Wherever You Are” as the three residents creep out like shy munchkins to greet their new friend. These munchkins are brutally cute: a drooling syphilitic who masturbates with a bowling pin, an ancient sour-faced crone silent since her youth as a sex slave in Turkey, and a former Miss Oklahoma gone simple as a Barbie doll. Beth, feeling immediately at home, reorganizes their talent show–a lumpish Swan Lake–into a drag extravaganza and saves her new family from eviction by improvising lip-synchs and MTV video dances to fight the evil Native American poseur who wants to turn their home into a wig store.
Watching this I felt like a bunny caught in the headlights of an oncoming circus truck–my only choice was to let it roll over me. In stunned disbelief I could only think, What next? The thrift-store-bright costumes, by Sean Bradshaw, and the manic cast, moving swiftly into different roles and scenes, filled Cafe Voltaire’s little basement stage with an intelligent, evil glee.
Nomenil’s dark, uneven, and entertaining aesthetic uses camp in the same way Antonin Artaud used abusive confrontation in his theater of cruelty. Like Our Parents Smoking Cornsilk breaks every theatrical rule but succeeds nonetheless. The story (if you can call it that) is nonsensical, the characters are almost universally unappealing, and the dialogue and situations are smart-assed and disorienting. But the show’s precise, high-energy farce and Saturday-morning-cartoon cheeriness coat the subversive, almost surreal bleakness with sugar, and the result is irresistible. Nomenil is a kind of shock therapy, providing a jolt that woke me up by putting me into a twisted dream, and even when I hated it, I loved it. May I have another, sir?