Ready for the River

Great Beast Theater at the SweetCorn Playhouse

‘Gator Bait

Sweetback Productions at the SweetCorn Playhouse

By Adam Langer

With all the money being poured into downtown theaters these days, you’d think that plays were best seen from a distance on soft-cushioned chairs with the odor of Chanel wafting through the air. But every play should have a chance in a theater like the SweetCorn Playhouse. In a dingy black box with mismatched chairs, some of them splattered with black paint. With makeshift lights powered by electrical cords wrapped around pipes. With a lighting booth so close to the audience that every whisper between sound and lighting technicians can be overheard and every musical cue is accompanied by the audible thumping of a button on a cassette deck. With paper-thin walls allowing one to hear passing cars and drunken revelers stumbling past the theater on their way to the next bar. Where the air is vaguely redolent of a sweaty, unaired bologna sandwich.

A theater like this is the great equalizer: it allows no sleight of hand, no fancy tricks, nothing to distract an audience from the play and the performances. Put a brilliant production of Hamlet in the SweetCorn Playhouse and the entire audience–all two rows of them–will be riveted. But give them Phantom of the Opera there and they’ll be running for the exits. Places like the SweetCorn Playhouse separate the great from the pretenders, the promising from the worthless. Phoniness, overacting, even poorly applied makeup are intolerable in such close quarters. As the saying goes in bad cop movies: One false move and you’re dead. There’s no escaping what’s onstage; it’s right there, within spitting distance. Great Beast’s production of Neal Bell’s Ready for the River, a flawed but thought-provoking play, takes on an immediacy here it might not have had in a more polished setting. And Sweetback’s depressingly sophomoric parody of white-trash life, ‘Gator Bait, reveals almost immediately just how little it has to offer.

Four years ago Ready for the River played in Chicago in Impulse Theatre Company’s splendidly designed and fairly well acted production at the old Body Politic. But from a distance, in a fairly pristine setting, Bell’s evocations of middle-American violence and alienation seemed monotonous and static–the desperate road trips taken by a mother and daughter only pointed up the lack of motion onstage. In Great Beast’s staging the acting isn’t as strong, the designs aren’t nearly as elaborate, and there’s such a feeling that the play was done on the cheap that you wince when a character rips up a $20 bill.

Yet something about Bell’s play resonates here. An eerie quality lingers despite the bare-bones production, with its sometimes clumsily choreographed sound and light cues and often dysfunctional set pieces. An effective portrait of contemporary America and the people who live at its margins emerges despite the somewhat disjointed script and the sketchily archetypal characters: Doris and her daughter, Lorna, run from the murderous Jim–their husband and father, who’s just shot down the banker come to repossess their farm. Traversing the country from abandoned farm to creepy roadside motel, they encounter the ghost of the man Jim killed, the ambiguous figure of the banker’s son, and various dogs and wolves whose barking and baying haunt them as they try to find refuge. Lorna comes to comprehend the true nature of her abusive father: he’s not a decent, flawed man who loved her but succumbed to his darker impulses–he’s someone altogether different, someone dangerous and violent. He’s like the America they travel, where violence and hatred–exemplified in one scene by homophobic graffiti–bespeak something rotten at the country’s core.

“How far is far enough?” two characters ask at separate points in the narrative. Even in a country as vast as this one, it’s never far enough. No matter the distances Lorna and Doris travel, dangers and evils remain; one cannot overcome them, only acknowledge them and try to understand them better. The folk song and spiritual sung during the play–“Good Night, Irene” and “Shall We Gather at the River”– both take on the same sinister meaning, the “great notion to jump in the river and drown.”

The feeling of desperation and claustrophobia in Ready for the River is heightened by the intimate setting of Michael Martin’s staging. The play’s ghosts, whistling wind, and unexpected knocks on doors cause one at times to nearly jump out of one’s cheapo chair. In terms of performances, too, the greatest economy produces the greatest success, as when Laurie Crowe as Doris swings back and forth, her voice barely raised above a whisper, speaking of her nightmarish journey through life. She achieves a quiet, contemplative, self-controlled subtlety that a couple of the other performers do not. Like the stage she swings above, Crowe’s performance aptly demonstrates the phrase “less is more.”

The only concession to elaborate design is provided by Eric Webb, whose painted purple and black backdrops suggest a world drained of color, compounding the play’s sense of loneliness and fear. Webb’s images of a highway or motel sign perfectly evoke Doris and Lorna’s journey through Bell’s decidedly unsettling vision of America.

Unsettling might be a good way to describe David Hayes’s ‘Gator Bait–or at least the effect the show is likely to have on viewers’ stomachs. Based loosely on a schlock screenplay by Beverly and Ferd Sebastian, it pokes raucous fun at every cliche of hillbilly life, lifting elements from Li’l Abner, the Jerry Springer show, and the World Wrestling Federation.

‘Gator Bait concerns a family of ignorant bumpkins trying to take revenge on a buxom hick who supposedly killed one brother and cut off another’s nuts. And since Sweetback is the company that also produced Scarrie–the Musical and Joan Crawford Goes to Hell, one doesn’t expect anything pithy or remotely intelligent. But this production is so gleefully repulsive, so incredibly infantile, and finally so uninteresting that it threatens to redefine the word “awful.” In a larger auditorium one might have been able to tune out some of the many shit and semen jokes, but in the SweetCorn Playhouse there’s no way to focus on anything but the high jinks onstage: at any point, anyone in the theater might get nailed with stage blood or semen.

If you find any of the following amusing–someone getting shot in the crotch and squirting blood from the pelvic region onto the audience, a tongueless retarded man routinely puking into a bowl that hangs around his neck, a hillbilly molesting the dead body of a woman he’s shot “in the cooch,” a man masturbating into a hand puppet that can’t talk back to him intelligibly because its mouth is full of semen, a man shitting in his pants and turning around to show the audience the results, a man getting killed with a snake rammed up his anus and another licking the excreta off the snake, or the original joke that country folk all sleep with their kin–‘Gator Bait might just make you laugh. If not, this material–coupled with the thought that a group of hardworking actors is taking the time to deliver this mindless gross-out fest–might just make you sick.