At Ochre House, The Butcher Has Chops
Three intriguing trends emerged during a week of seeing new plays at small playhouses: the simple but stunning effect of actors' faces lit with tiny handheld flashlights; plots about murders in dark environs; and animals as pivotal characters (a monkey in one show, a pig in another). Some strange and wonderful minds are producing fresh works for the stage around here.
Let's start with the one about a talking pig.
The Butcher is the latest original piece by writer-director-actor Matthew Posey at his tiny theatrical incubator called the Ochre House. It's a rock musical and a bloody good one, emphasis on "bloody." Posey stars as Zachary Blut, a brooding Irish meat seller hurting for product during a famine. The only meat left in his shop has gone rancid. "Put some rosemary on it," he orders wife Gerty (Elizabeth Evans). She takes a sniff and says, "Putting a rosary on it would be more fitting." Good line.
Zachary's troubles begin when he scores a fat pig from a black-market source. A Scottish meat inspector (Kevin Grammer) gets a little too nosy at the Bluts' butcher shop and ends up on the chopping block. The pig, meanwhile, talks and sings to Zachary, trying to teach him morality lessons. Will he become a better man before much-abused Gerty carries out a murder-for-hire scheme that could render her rotten husband into a steaming meat pie?
It's Sweeney Todd sandwiched between elements of Greek tragedy and the Muppets. The talking pig is a life-sized puppet operated and voiced by Grammer. It opens the show, hogging full credit for its creation, and reappears through both acts, singing and waving its fat pink hooves at the audience.
Blind beggar brothers Castor (Justin Locklear) and Pollux (Mitchell Parrack) act as the chorus and comedy relief. Singing in sweet harmony and dancing into walls on the 10-by-12-foot stage, they are the light to the Bluts' dark natures. They're there to change the fates of Zachary and Gerty when they stumble, starving, into the butcher shop one rainy day.
That's it for characters in The Butcher, and there are only three musicians—composer Ross Mackey on guitar, Bobby Nazem on percussion and Scott Shaddock on keyboards—but this show creates an illusion of being a much bigger production. Posey's getting wiser about how he uses the 40-seat Ochre House (which is also his home), and in this show he and his "Ochre House Boys," as they call themselves, have come up with some stunning visual images (handheld flashlights under faces in the opening number, for instance, and characters singing post-mortem as they hang from meat hooks).
Performances in The Butcher wouldn't pass muster in musicals on other stages, but here, where shows are kept intentionally unpolished, they work fine. Posey talk-sings his numbers in a Tom Waits growl. Evans, in cadaverous makeup, is a better rock belter than she is a speaker of dialogue. Most of her lines get lost in lispy, mushy diction and a thick Irish brogue; even from the second row, she was hard to understand.
But the Ochre House, like the bars that surround it in Fair Park, ought to keep its entertainment on the rough side. This is the twelfth original production and fourth new musical the theater has staged over the past couple of years, and they've all had that dangerous air of art that's not trying for perfection. As Posey's character says in The Butcher, "The hole is more noble than the patch."
Only slightly larger than the Ochre House is White Rock Lake's Bath House Cultural Center, where One Thirty Productions is premiering The Mystery of Miz Arnette, a new play by Ronnie Claire Edwards and Alan Bailey.
Edwards, who retired to Dallas after a long career as a stage and TV actress (including a stint on The Waltons), based the story on a character from her childhood. Miz Arnette is a flamboyant woman who one day appears, with her pet monkey Lucifer, in a small-town boarding house in Dust Bowl Oklahoma. Played with fiercely funny flourishes by Cindee Mayfield, the mystery lady befriends the teenage daughter (Zoe Kerr) of the homeowner (Sonny Franks). Regaling the girl with tales of world travels, plus dramatic re-enactments of the more colorful chapters of the Old Testament, Miz Arnette livens up a dull household. When another boarder (Gene Raye Price) starts a rumor that Miz Arnette is a wanted criminal, she disappears. What Miz Arnette leaves behind is the payoff.
The play captures an era that laughed at corny jokes and used quaint words like "chiffarobe" and "counterpane." One Thirty's audience is the older matinee crowd (all shows are performed at 1:30 p.m.). This is their lingo.
But even without the nostalgia factor, The Mystery of Miz Arnette is a sweet, original comedy. Lucifer, never seen but wildly active offstage, is a classic trickster who figures into some inspired bits of dialogue: "Where's Lucifer?" "He's up on the windmill!" "Is he wearing his coat?"
I love Lucifer.
Nouveau 47, the little company devoted to new work at Fair Park's Magnolia Lounge, continues its two-week Nouveau Frontiers festival through May 22. Each night they're hosting staged readings of new plays, with talkbacks after each performance with the audience, actors, playwrights, directors and critics. I sat in for Coyote, an exciting new dark comedy by UT-Austin grad student Kevin Kautzman, and there was close to an hour of lively back-and-forth among audience members and panelists afterward.
Tickets for readings are $5. Get details at nouveau47.com.
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