Posted by: strugglesome | September 7, 2010

Scaredy Cat: Exploring Anxiety and One Upsmanship with Charlotte Ford’s Chicken

For such a beautiful woman, Charlotte Ford sure does rock ugly like it’s her job. But then again, I guess it is.  I’m not saying that Ford walks around Philadelphia in the guise of the Wicked Witch of the West, in fact, every time I’ve seen Ford in public she looks perfectly nice, better than I do, certainly. But put her on a stage and just watch the swan become an ugly duckling. And then laugh. She wants you to, I promise.

I first had the opportunity to see Ford at her worst (and by that I mean best) in Pig Iron Theater Company’s offering for last year’s Live Arts/Philadelphia Fringe, Welcome To Yuba City. Running around a mythical Southwestern desert and changing costumes and characters at lightening speed, Ford was at once a Russian mail order bride, a nerdy kid, a cross-eyed cowboy, something involving a mullet, among others, and I have to say, there wasn’t a single character she played that I didn’t enjoy. So when I heard that Ford was creating a piece for this year’s Live Arts/Philadelphia Fringe Festival, I was, of course, unreservedly thrilled. That knowledge coupled with the information that the director of the work was to be Geoff Sobelle (and if you don’t already have a giant talent crush on the Pig Iron/Rainpan 43 member/all around tour-de-force, well, you should), found me fairly foaming at the mouth to see what they came up with. And so this past Friday evening I made it my business to be seated, cell phone politely silenced, ready to be amazed. And while you can’t always get what you want, in this case, I did in fact achieve satisfaction.

In an animal behavior course I took in college I learned that human beings are the only creatures in the animal kingdom that can feel disgust. I must warn you that that feeling does come up quite a bit during the course of Ford’s supremely deliciously disgusting new piece, Chicken. The premise is simple enough, three eccentric denizens of a small turquoise and teal submarine take turns torturing each other (and themselves) as they kill time. Our first introduction to this motley crew is Jay Dunn’s Stanley,  the bumbling handyman/chef/housekeeper, who stumbles around the claustrophobic space like a clumsy bear in a mint jumpsuit. Between causally breaking the submarine and potentially endangering the lives of cast and audience alike by creating the most disgusting meal possible (seared squid, condensed Campbill’s soup and noodles mixed together, prepared right there on stage; good help is so very hard to find, isn’t it?), Stanley seems to be engaged in a silent battle with Eddie, another crew member, over the oeuvre of Elvis Presley and the attentions of Captain Pam (Ford). The excellently disturbing Eddie, played by Mikaal Sulaiman, reminds one of a snail crossed with a child molester, all sweaty palms and stares, curling into his little corner of the stage, which is decorated with images of the King, of course. While it’s not clear exactly what Eddie does in this submarine, (he seems to be listening on headphones for a large chunk of time, though whether that’s to hear whales tales or Love Me Tender I couldn’t say), it is clear that he is the object of Pam’s bizarre affections.

And then there is Pam herself, a lisping slurring obnoxiously juvenile, manic deceptive figure with a terrible (and wonderful) wig who takes such pleasure in her sophomoric pranks and bad jokes that she practically fizzes with delight. She fills Stan’s spray bottle with urine and makes him brush his teeth with it, she accuses both her compatriots of raping her and becomes sexually aroused when Eddie plays along and spends the rest of the piece thrusting against ladders and making erotic use of a thigh-master in an effort to seduce him, and that’s all just in the first half of the performance. As dinner for three (seriously, don’t sit in the front, this show is seriously smelly) devolves into a high stakes game of Chicken (see what they did there?) with dares ranging from licking someone’s eyeball (a task Eddie performs almost lovingly, caressing Stan’s face like a soft core porno) to chowing down on Fancy Feast (which really can’t be any worse than the dinner, as my companion observed) to far worse. The last dare culminates in a sharp left turn that leaves our protagonists (Antagonists? Abusers? New best friends?) in quite a pickle, which serves as a nice closing taste to a fantastic and terrible meal. In an effort not to ruin the ending for those who love suspense, I wont reveal any more than that, but suffice to say, like any successful game of chicken, it turns brutal at the drop of a hat.

Because Ford has spent the past year as an Artist in Residence for the Live Arts Festival, she has been working and developing this piece in a large warehouse at 919 North 5th Street, a cement laden space that gives new meaning to the term industrial chic. Instead of using the entirety of the awkwardly shaped loading dock once used for furniture deliveries, Ford’s set (and costume) designer, the multi-talented Maiko Matsushima (who collaborated with Jebney Lewis on the set) has created a beautiful and claustrophobic little underwater coffin for all of this revolting and intriguing insanity to exist within, though it does beg the question as to why the submarine is significant. Apart from the anxiety of a small enclosed space and the excuse it provides for all of these people to be stuck together, there is never a larger sense of their purpose for being there, or a sense of how much time they have spent alone together underwater. Perhaps if we had had a better sense of whatever has been leading up to this point in time the final Twilight-Zone conclusion would feel as if it had been slightly better earned. As it stands now, despite just how gross the dish being offered turned out to be, it still left me hungry for more, more of Ford and her extremely talented cast, and more of this piece, this story. As excited as I was to see this, I am even more eager to see where this might go.

On an  unrelated note, I haven’t read a single article or interview with Ford that has failed to mention the fact that she and Sobelle are romantically engaged. I guess some memo goes around that never finds its way to my desk. So here is my apparently obligatory nod to theatrical gossip, though why everyone is so fascinated with collaborators who get together, I have no idea. Oh, well, don’t worry, Geoff and Charlotte, I’m sure Brad and Angelia can relate.

If you want to see Chicken (and you SHOULD), you can buy tickets here, it will be running through the end of the Festival. Come on, do it, I dare you.

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