There’s something immediately audacious and comical about compressing a voluminous turn of the century literary oeuvre into a one hour performance piece. When said performance is delivered by just two actors, deploying only a hat and a scarf as props, the ante rises significantly. As does the challenge. Such is the project Carrie Brown and Karim Muasher, jointly the Animal Engine production company, set themselves in their show Petunia and Chicken, presently showing as part of the 2014 Frigid Festival at the Kraine Theater. Skillful performers both, trained clowns, they arrive at this year’s event with the accolade of having won last year’s Participants Pick Award for their joint authored show, The Vindlevoss Family Circus Spectacular!
Petunia and Chicken takes as inspiration Willa Cather‘s well regarded literary Prairie Trilogy – My Antonia, O Pioneers!, and Song of the Lark – wide reaching stories illuminating the experience of the agricultural peoples that settled the plain states at the latter end of the nineteenth century. The genius of Cather’s apparently simple narrative style is that it has roots in some of humanities darkest places. While ever respectful, Animal Engine address only surface Cather, mining the humor to be found in characters, tropes, and plot devices which – today – nearly all hold a whiff of nineteenth century corn about them. This is, after all, clowning, but clowning that wishes to breathe some of the finer air found in great literature. Funny, no?
Petunia and her family – father, mother, brother Ambrosz – are immigrants from Europe, looking to settle on cheap land holdings in Nebraska. Their’s is the make-it-rich dream of coming to America. “Chicken” Burden is an orphan – his parents victims perhaps of a similar dream – and grandson of the neighboring property owners. Whilst children, they meet and become fast friends and, as the years pass and parents succumb, shy lovers. Chicken wants adventure and experience, Petunia is dutiful and rooted. The familiarity of this story arc serves Brown and Muasher well, as their formal telling of it is original, imaginative, and at times startling. The writing is clever and there is evident ingenuity of editing and dramatization. We get some memorable invocations of landscape – an essential component of Cather’s world; waving fields of wheat, rhythmic sighing windmill sails, the ceaseless rise and fall of water pumps all mimed by the performers on a blank stage. Brown gives us a touching and hilarious impression of Chicken’s faithful canine companion, smushed face and hunched shoulders, as he tries to keep up with his restless young master. These moments are precious and vivid theater. But the necessary break-neck pace at which the whole thing has to unfold works sometimes to blur the sharpness of personation and gesture.
Additionally, if you overwhelm your central characters with cartoon surroundings and personalities, you shouldn’t be surprised if they partake of some of that cartoonism, and dramatic impact is depleted. So even as your story is building towards an inevitable climax, it is losing air, and the eventual pop is muffled – regardless of how heavy the inverted commas around that pop might be
in the first place. Melinda Jean Ferraraccio’s directing must take some blame here. It wants crispness. Clever and sharp is how to keep things aloft. There shouldn’t be room for the serviceable gesture or allusion, despite the speed of proceedings. First night opening issues aside, this reviewer felt the performance in need of some polish.
One feels Brown and Muasher, imaginative and energetic as they are, can find it. They are shrewd enough to turn the rudimentary lighting set-up they deploy into a moment of fun, when there’s some direct address to the lighting booth controller during the performance. Other than the lighting, they conjure everything else. And however jaded your outlook you’ll be rooting for them throughout. On evidence, Thursday night’s audience certainly were, and seemed utterly taken by them to wherever they traveled, narrative whiplash notwithstanding. Clowns, of course, can be gratuitous crowd-pleasers, but their durable notoriety resides not merely in this fun raising provocation, but ultimately in the canny ability to unsettle. This sweeping, romantic tale of settlers ultimately wants a little unsettling.
Petunia And Chicken
Inspired by the works of Willa Cather
Created and performed by Carrie Brown and Karim Muasher
Direction from Melinda Jean Ferraraccio
Feb 24, 8:40PM
Mar 03, 10:15PM
Mar 06, 8:40PM
Mar 08, 3:40PM
Click HERE for tickets
Running time: 1 h 0 min
Price: $10.00 – $15.00
Seating: General Admission
The Kraine Theater
85 E. 4th Street
New York , New York 10003
2nd and 3rd Ave
Horse Trade Theater Group will present the 8th Annual FRIGID New York Festival at The Kraine Theater (85 East 4th Street between 2nd Avenue and Bowery) and UNDER St. Marks (94 St. Marks Place between 1st Avenue and Avenue A) February 19-March 9. Tickets are available for purchase in advance at www.FRIGIDnewyork.info or by calling 212-868-4444.