By Elaine Liner
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Nobody ever accused Pocket Sandwich Theatre of being too sophisticated. Tucked into the corner of a shopping strip across from Mockingbird Station, the cozy little dinner playhouse serves terrible food and puts on plays aimed at beer-and-nacho appetites.
Pocket's latest, Fangs for the Memories, revives one of its old comedy melodramas. Written by Pocket founders Joe Dickinson and Rodney Dobbs a decade ago, the play's a gumbo of elements borrowed from Anne Rice, Bram Stoker, William Shakespeare and Raymond Chandler. And you know what? It's pretty dadgum funny, in that dumb popcorn-throwing, pun-spewing Pocket Sandwich style that's kept this venue in business for a quarter century. It's stupidly satisfying on a cold winter night, rather like a Styrofoam bowl of those microwaved nachos they sell.
Pocket Sandwich Theatre pays its actors in gas money (and gastrointestinal distress, if they dare to sample the menu too often), so the cast is a blend of rank amateurs and work-cheap pros. Some are better than others at the show's exaggerated goofiness—namely lead actor DeWayne Blundell, a lanky chrome-dome who's a stitch as a bumfuzzled private dick—but overall it's a tight little ensemble of players brave enough to take the stage every night and endure the blizzard of popcorn thrown at them by patrons. This behavior is not just encouraged (with baskets of free corn provided) but required, as it gives the actors more to chew on wisecrack-wise. They're free to ad lib, which must be liberating in a show with dialogue that's less than crackling. Without the hail of kernels pouring down on the villains, Fangs for the Memories would be much less fulfilling.
Fangs for the Memories continues through February 13 at Pocket Sandwich Theatre. Call 214-821-1860.
Swing! continues through January 30 at Artisan Center Theater, Hurst. Call 817-284-1200.
And almost everyone's a bad guy or gal in Fangs, including the main character, detective Dirk Spatula (Blundell). He's working both sides in a family feud case between two French Quarter households, the Pricolics and the Strogofs. The former is a clan of immortal vampires whose son Peter (Travis Cook) has declared himself a vegan with no thirst for human blood. His lady love, Salamandre Strogof (Staci Cook), has no idea that her future in-laws are ruthless bloodsuckers.
A Russian vampire bounty hunter (Patrick H. Douglass) and a Goth-style tabloid reporter (Jocelyn Everett) looking for a scoop arrive in New Orleans and get caught up in the goofy goings-on. Dirk Spatula (pronounced Spah-TOO-lah) skulks around Bourbon Street and Jackson Square in his trench coat and fedora, carrying on terse Chandleresque arguments with his own voiceover narration. His assistant, Marie Leveau (Madelyn Fortner), whips up some voodoo to keep things interesting. And there always has to be a hapless cop in these deals; this one's named Jim Balaya (Kevin Thrasher).
The jokes in Fangs are long in the tooth, with references to Red Skelton, Carol Burnett, the Lone Ranger and the Batman TV series. You'll laugh if you're old enough to remember those pop culture icons—and not too old to have forgotten them again. For the young folk, there are up-to-date gags about the sexy neck-biters of Twilight.
Pianist Emily McGrew keeps up a constant underscore for the two-hour show. When she plays a few bars of the Young & Restless theme, the audience reflexively says "awwww." And what's a melodrama without the familiar rolls of bass notes from old-timey silent film villain music?
This is one of Pocket's better looking productions of late. The set by Dobbs is a painterly-pinkish swirl of images evoking N'awlins. The center section does a twirly-whirly thing that makes for quick changes of scene. Costumes by Christina McGowan are heavy on purples and blacks, but she has done some witty things for a few characters. Young Peter, the vegan son of creatures of the night, is dressed like an extra from Grease.
Fangs is good, cheap fun. The ending, a double suicide lifted right from Romeo and Juliet, may not be the strongest way to wind up a comedy, but at least the two kids wake up and stay up this time.
Pocket Sandwich Theatre works on the cheap, but they do have some standards and even, believe it or not, decent taste in material and production values, which have been improving over the past few years. They also know their audience, so they're never going to get too serious about theater as aht.
Out in Hurst, the little in-the-round Artisan Center Theater also has a loyal crowd filling the house for almost every performance. Under the "family-friendly" banner, selling tickets with a top price of $16, Artisan, owned and run by Richard and DeeAnn Blair, puts on a year-round season of G-rated fare. The latest, a "concept musical" called Swing!, is an attempt at a grandma-pleasing tribute to the Big Band era and its bouncy dances.
Except Artisan and its in-house director, John Wilkerson, didn't hire a big band, merely gathered a ragtag combo of seven musicians, some young, some not, whose instruments aren't in tune. The drummer rushes the beats. The trumpet player has a bad case of the squawks, which makes "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" beddy, beddy bad.
With the first sour notes from the show's "host" (Bonaduce lookalike Michael Durington at the performance reviewed), singing a painfully off-pitch rendition of "It Don't Mean a Thing...," it was clear we were in for a bumpy ride with this Swing! set. The singers can't sing; the dancers can't dance; the musicians struggle. Every design element of the production lacks polish, too, from the sloppy scrawls on the high school gym-style scenery to the uniformly unflattering clothing choices for the cast. Black sequined cocktail dress worn with white cotton sneakers. So help me.
Eight young hoofers feign enthusiasm as they stomp and clomp awkwardly through Linda Leonard's jump-and-jive choreography. Swing dancing is done on the balls of the feet. These kids all have the flatfoot floogie with the floy-floy. One guy actually fell on his face during the "Boogie Woogie Country" number. And there's a weird bit on "Harlem Nocturne" where a girl dancer bump-humps a cello.
Only singer Natalie Berry, who seems to have wandered in from professional showbiz by accident, does everything right. She's a pretty gal who lights up the joint with her best numbers: the Johnny Mercer/Hoagy Carmichael ballad "Skylark"; and Arthur Hamilton's (not Justin Timberlake's) jazz-bluesy "Cry Me a River," sung to a wailing trombone (nice job on that one, trombonist Kurris Muller).
But poor Ms. Berry has to don an unfortunate yellow voile prom gown for the finale. It's dingy and wrinkled, like somebody slept in it. For a year.
Artisan needs to wake up and grow up. Low-budget theater doesn't have to be bad. Look at the remarkable shows done by small companies like Audacity Productions, Upstart, Amphibian and The Ochre House. They operate with limited resources but pay attention to the details, making the most of what they have. They care about quality.
The management and the people who choose to perform (unpaid) at Artisan are settling for shoddy productions and selling them as legit theater. They're insulting their audience, whether their audience knows that yet or not.