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Lord I was born a wrestling man: Tweel and Fry.
(Photo by Ian Armstrong)
Generally speaking, processed meat is not a subject for close examination. When it comes to Spam, Treet, Vienna sausages and similarly questionable things that society puts in its hungry mouth, I’ve always felt the less said, the better.
Unless, as it now turns out, you’re Anton Dudley.
The writer-director behind Spamlet, the new season opener for Cherry Red Productions, throws caution to the wind in a subversively clever dissection of theatrical convention and American pop culture. What drifts back smells sweet indeed, even if it is closer to the semi-sickly olfactory sensation of popping back the lid on a can of Spam and wondering where the hell this stuff comes from.
Dudley has modeled Spamlet loosely on — take a guess — Shakespeare’s Hamlet, coming up with a working-class setting in Florida where college students Hamlet (Gabriel Fry) and his doofus cousin Hercules (John Tweel) return home to find that Hamlet’s father has been killed in a freak accident at the local Schpam factory. Now Hamlet’s mom Gert (Kate Debelack) and her sister Dolores (Barbara Catrett) are living together in trailer trash squalor that would make a Jerry Springer scout wet. The foul-mouthed, pink-haired Gert wants to seduce the neo-Nazi Schpam titan Fritz (Ian Allen) so she can quit her job and become a rock star, while Dolores has the hots for Fritz’s mullet-coiffed, fifteen-year-old son Ned (Richard Renfield).
Naturally, an apparition appears to Hamlet to let him know the meat processing mishap that claimed his dad was no accident, and it’s up to Hamlet to determine who’s the murderer and avenge the crime. Dudley even throws in an Ophelia stand-in with the character of Ohfahfahfah (Patricia Penn), the voluptuous, nymphomaniacal girlfriend of Hercules whose adoption by Gert — don’t ask — renders her desires incestuous.
All this silliness provides a smorgasbord for a consistently talented, well-selected cast, and they approach it ravenously. Fresh from her powerful performance in Project Y’s In the Boom Boom Room, Debelack steals the show with her portrayal of Gert’s lusty, wacked-out desire for fame and fortune. I’ve a sneaking suspicion that she’s a local talent destined for bigger things.
Debelack’s Gert is well-balanced by Catrett, who brings a suburban soccer-mom-gone-awry sensibility to Dolores’s bottom-feeding circumstances. It makes Dolores’s transformation for the play’s climax — details of which I won’t divulge, lest I spoil the plot — an especially delightful triumph of camp sensibility.
Allen and Renfield make a perfectly bizarre Fritz-Ned family unit, and both show a gift for comic timing and dry, understated, knowing delivery. Likewise, Tweel and Penn show remarkable confidence in and commitment to their erotically charged, over-the-top portrayals.
It all leaves Hamlet to walk a fine line between the lunacy swirling around him and an earnest, painfully self-aware teen-ness. Fry stakes out the territory, nicely shaped by Dudley, quite well, and he’s a total cutie to boot. How kind, then, of Dudley to throw in a completely gratuitous, infinitely enjoyable beefcake wrestling scene with Fry and the studly Tweel. That’s your fifteen bucks’ worth right there.
My experience with Cherry Red has shown their output to be quite the hit-or-miss proposition. But Spamlet falls unquestionably into the hit column, exceeding what I’ve seen from the company previously in terms of sheer visceral comic enjoyment. Give this one a try, or you’ll miss out on some genuine theatrical fun.
Through September 21st at Warehouse Next Door, 1017 7th Street NW. Tickets are $15. Call 202-298-9077. Visit www.cherryredproductions.com.