I don't visit Joe Dickinson's Pocket Sandwich Theatre very often, but lest the readers think I'm too snobby to lob a handful of popcorn with the Pocket faithful, let me rush to confirm that I've desperately wanted to hurl comestibles at a few shows during the just-ended Dallas theater season. Maybe it's that Dickinson and company not only give you permission, but actively encourage you to toss heated corn kernels, that takes all the fun out of it. Add to this the fact that Dallas Theater Center and Dallas Summer Musicals offer a plethora of expensive out-of-town performers to pelt, and I can only say that the Pocket Sandwich ranks far down on the list of companies that require my opinions in mid-show, projectile form.
Actually, the popcorn-throwing spoofs and melodramas are not the only fare offered here -- they also serve non-participatory spoofs and melodramas, along with beer by the pitcher and enough varieties of fried food to clog a rendering plant. It's a time-tested, box-office-friendly combo, which is the main reason I don't make a point of reviewing their shows: They don't need anyone's help. The longer a Pocket Sandwich show goes into its run, the harder it is to get tickets, which always drives home one of the truisms spoken half seriously by a member of a struggling company -- alcohol and salted fat could be the savior of the Dallas theater scene. Of course, your average Undermain show doesn't properly prepare the digestion for cheese fries, but the point is larger than that: Live theater, which (generally speaking) doesn't assault your senses like movies and (usually) doesn't let you eat and drink during the show and often won't even let you leave your seat until intermission, can be an uncomfortably ascetic experience.
I'm the first to rail against lazy, hazy-minded contemporary audiences, who for the most part have lost the inclination to meet the stage and the visual arts halfway by exercising their imaginations. Here's the challenge to people who want to survive and entertain with live theater: What makes people relaxed enough to open their minds a little bit and allow them the chance to cram a gigantic wad of ancient art into their craniums?
Beer and comfort food do. But what's happening on stage at the Pocket right now is their equivalent -- the non-participatory Bride of Frankenstein: The Musical. The question of art vs. commerce, of how-far-do-we-go-to-further-accommodate
-coddled-modern-audiences-but-still-sling-art, is irrelevant in this cheerful universe. The onstage servings are cooked up to coat your tummy and buzz your brain every bit as much as what comes out of the kitchen. The good folks at the Pocket, completely without need of media exposure, crammed a last-minute request by a theater critic who not only didn't pay for his ticket, but consumed one lousy cup of ice water during the whole three acts. And although my vision wasn't blurred from seared animal lipids and fermented hops, I was still in the frame of mind to tell the difference between good junk food and bad junk food, theatrically speaking -- and the surprisingly subtle, expertly delivered Bride of Frankenstein: The Musical left me smacking my lips at final bows.
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Even at its most frivolous and fatty, theater still requires a greater investment of concentration than, say, Sister Sister. Written by Sandwich stalwarts Rodney Dobbs and Mary Duren, this sequel to their previous musical effort about Mary Shelley's pitiful bachelor creature has a vaudevillian attentiveness to its audience that belies what you might expect: director E. Lee Smith seems to have spent a lot of time smoothing out the spaces between dialogue, coaching his actors to work with an audience primed to have a good time rather than guiding the performers to bust their humps trying to manufacture that good time from scratch. It's a subtle difference, and rarely articulated well, but one of the problems with past Pocket shows (and something that seems to have become a degenerative disease over at Pegasus Theatre, a kindred comic spirit) is that the material seems to be delivered with the expectation that the audience will laugh rather than an understanding that they want to laugh. This difference, that a talented comic performer must be tuned to ticketbuyers' receptiveness and shape his or her performance night by night rather than barking one-liners at the audience like drill commands, may seem hair-splitting, but it's actually monumental. Stop and think about it -- how often do you, as a theatergoer, feel ignored by a comedy because its writers and performers take too much for granted, assume they already know what you think is funny rather than letting you find it on your own? The cast of Bride of Frankenstein has for the most part forsaken canned humor to give performances that have one ear pitched to the noisy darkness outside the footlights and all their energy aimed at one another.
And the enthusiastic patrons, while still mostly chowing down and sipping, rose to the occasion. In my experience, the popcorn-throwing shows are scattershot successes and almost impossible to review fairly -- the audience is either too shy to throw or too drunk to listen. The actors are left flailing, posing, beating you with punch lines that feel like they were written on baseball bats. There's no 'corn to be thrown in Bride of Frankenstein, just the story of the Creature (Mark Richmond), his some-assembly-required lover (Nhaila Hendrickse), and their hapless creator Victor Von Frankenstein (Bill Owen), who divides his attention between their demands and those of his new bride, Elizabeth (Sally O'Casey).
The actors are strong-voiced and well-cast, and the most unexpected gift I received at this performance -- the needle barely even reached two on the mugging meter. These people didn't have to make exaggerated faces and wink and nod to let us in on the joke, because the material was funny without being filled with helium. Perhaps the musical highlight was a genuinely sweet if off-kilter ode exchanged between new spouses Victor and Elizabeth called "Till Death Do Us Part." In the background, three killings take place, with the murderers' faces tuned in to the romance of the couple's duet rather than their own horrible deeds. "The Rest of My Girl's in Heaven" finds the ensemble cast echoing the lovelorn miseries of the Creature, who hovers over his bride-to-be with some genuinely affecting urgency. When a lightning jolt gets her juices flowing, this unexpected twinge of gut sadness returns as Nhaila Hendrickse does a short but smashing turn as the monster who's frightened of her own reflection.
Pocket Sandwich's Bride of Frankenstein takes a number of interesting twists and turns, including bookending the story with a fanciful literary look at how Mary Shelley (also Sally O'Casey) modeled the monster on ravenous womanizer Lord Byron (also Mark Richmond), but the proceedings come to a screeching halt during the third act, which offers two pointless, stilted reprises. This doesn't negate all the fun the actors have been having on stage up until then; we're just grateful that director Smith cared enough to cast real talent and then help polish their performances in a venue that can be tempted to scrimp on stage quality because, well, the audiences are in the bag. The Sandwich serves enough fried food to make you feel gastronomically guilty after a night there; luckily, you needn't worry that your brain cells will go flabby after a trip to the altar with The Bride of Frankenstein.
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