The Snarkout Boys & the Avocado of Death

Lifeline Theatre

Long before the Music Box–even before the now-defunct Parkway, presently the site of a LensCrafters–there was the Clark. Located near Clark and Madison (the building has long since been demolished), this tiny theater was part cinematheque and part flophouse, a haven for Chicago’s movie-mad and world-weary in the 1950s and ’60s. It was open almost around the clock, and every day it showed a different double feature. Its repertoire of international films emphasized the old, the odd, the offbeat, and the downright obscure, offered in sometimes inspired, sometimes bizarrely incongruous pairings that were advertised in whimsically rhymed circulars. Its patrons in those pre-VCR, precable days ranged from learned cineasts and casual movie fans to sailors on shore leave and shopping-bag ladies (who could sit upstairs in the women-only “Gal-Lery”). High school and college kids were a big part of the audience: more than a few aspiring directors, screenwriters, and critics–not to mention the folks who packaged and programmed the Clark’s slicker successors, with their sprawling colored calendars–got a better education in that faded little flea pit than they could have gotten in the finest schools.

Among the Clark’s clientele was Daniel Pinkwater, the children’s novelist and radio humorist whose 1982 book The Snarkout Boys & the Avocado of Death draws its inspiration from the author’s boyhood in 50s Chicago. Pinkwater’s “Snark” isn’t the mythical creature of Lewis Carroll’s verse; it’s a compression of the words “sneak” and “Clark”–and sneaking off to the Snark after curfew is how the story’s protagonists embark on their goofy adventures. As adapted for the stage by Lifeline Theatre, The Snarkout Boys is a wild and woolly thriller spoof spun from an alienated adolescent’s curiosity and the repulsion he feels for family and school, filtered through the weirdly juxtaposed sci-fi and art films he sees during his late-night “snarkouts.”

Set in “Baconburg” (truly the world’s hog butcher), The Snarkout Boys concerns three kids’ fanciful search for Flipping Hades Terwilliger, a self-proclaimed mad scientist whose efforts to breed a super avocado have drawn the malignant attention of a master criminal. The three heroes are Walter Galt and Winston Bongo, the “snarkout boys,” and their female friend Bentley Saunders Harrison Matthews–aka Rat–whom Walter meets in Blueberry Park, a bughouse square peopled by beatnik soapbox orators and their hipster hecklers. (The park takes its name from the building across the street: Blueberry Library.) Joining the kids in the quest for Flipping (who is Rat’s uncle) are supersleuth Osgood Sigerson and his companion Dr. Ormond Sacker; Winston’s wrestler uncle, the Mighty Gorilla; and Chicken Man, a holdover from Pinkwater’s earlier book Lizard Music. Based on a real-life street entertainer known as Casey Jones, who died in 1974 at the age of 104 after enthralling generations of Chicagoans with his dancing fowl, the magical Chicken Man guides the teen trio through Baconburg’s little-known boroughs, including Lower North Aufzoo, a wackier Wacker described as “the city beneath the city,” and Tintown, a shanty settlement on the west side, where the thickening plot brings the amateur detectives into contact with the oversize vegetable of the title.

The plot of The Snarkout Boys is an absurd amalgam of Sherlock Holmes melodramas, The Maltese Falcon (one of the bad guys is a Sydney Greenstreet type named Gutzman), and innumerable grade-Z sci-fi flicks with titles like The Invasion of the Space Alien Realtors. Ultimately, however, the plot is as unimportant as it is comically ridiculous. It’s a Hitchcockian macguffin–an excuse for inspired silliness and a metaphor for the underlying emotional theme, which is Walter’s growing up. An imaginative but immature geek, Walter feels isolated from his nagging parents and alienated from his robot classmates and out-of-touch teachers at Genghis Khan High School; his avocado-obsessed father makes synthetic sausage, and the school system seems bent on processing equally synthetic students. Late-night movies at the Snark are Walter’s refuge–“a way of life, or a way to get through life,” he says–and the mad-scientist search is a fantasy in which his family and friends appear as characters, just as Dorothy’s relatives populated her imaginary world over the rainbow. The Snarkout Boys’ darkly surreal landscape is an urban Oz–or a less threatening version of William S. Burroughs’s Interzone–in which Walter searches for Flipping Hades Terwilliger and begins to find himself.

Playwright James Sie has adapted The Snarkout Boys with a much freer hand than his fellow Lifeliner Christina Calvit used for her 1993 adaptation of Lizard Music, in which Sie starred. He’s compressed the book effectively, cutting out long stretches of description while adding his own clever touches to speed up the comic pace and highlight the psychological subtext. The most important of these is the play’s framing device: it’s a mental movie being directed on the spot by Walter, who guides us from scene to scene by describing the action in terms of close-ups and reaction shots. Sie and director Curt Columbus have also added wonderful passages of visual and physical humor to complement the subtle wordplay in the script, producing a genuinely appealing all-ages comedy with a strange but accessible sensibility.

Columbus’s keen eye for casting has brought together a winningly odd arrangement of actors completely in touch with the material. John David, though ganglier and gawkier than the plump Walter of the book, perfectly captures awkward adolescent anxiety: he responds to a mystifying world, alternately intoxicating and appalling, with an emotionally clenched tension that’s hilarious, touching, and thoroughly convincing. A high point is his dumbstruck reaction to the punkish Rat–well played by Abigail Sher with plenty of surging intensity–when she gives him a love punch sure to leave his bicep bruised for a week. “It still hurts,” he says with an indescribably right mix of awe, shock, love, and plain old pain.

Effective support comes from Mike Wollensak as no-neck Winston; Kevin Theis as Mr. Galt and his alter ego Osgood Sigerson; Gregory Hollimon’s enigmatic, mischievous Chicken Man; Tom Dwight’s lunatic Uncle Flipping; Patrick Blashill as the ridiculously muscle-bound Hulk Hogan wannabe Mighty Gorilla; and Nathan Rankin in a variety of roles (among them an Aryan Chinese butler, one of several improbable juxtapositions that reflect the whimsically paired Snark double features). Husky-voiced Neo-Futurist Lusia Strus plays Walter’s tuna-casserole-making mom and her various surrogates, including Osgood Sigerson’s sidekick Dr. Sacker, a martial-arts expert who wields a lacrosse racket, and a Dietrich-like cabaret singer who rasps that “Love Is a Potato” (a playful nonsense tune written by Douglas Wood), reinforcing the pervasive sense of hilarious incongruity as well as the underlying theme of life as something weird but delicious once you acquire a taste for it. Like an avocado. With this addition to its string of literary adaptations, Lifeline Theatre once again proves its commitment to funny, thoughtful prime-time “family theater” that really is for the whole family–grown-ups included.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzanne N. Plunkett.