It’s a pity so many seats went unfilled for Thursday’s opening night performance of “Munched” at Space 55 in Phoenix. The work, written by Kim Porter, is excellent and worthy of a bigger, brighter venue. I hate to think that the theater company’s location, at the corner of Pierce and 7th Streets might be preventing folks from giving it a try.
Listen, I know it’s hip to have a shabby little joint that feels anti-establishment when you specialize in “under-represented” works. But there’s a difference between “under-represented” theater that sucks and “under-represented” theater than soars. Deal with it. You folks need a better piece of real estate.
“Munched” is the tale of a woman accused of Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a disorder in which a parent feigns or causes a child’s illness in order to get attention. Also the story of her daughter, and how they reconnect after the many years one has spent in prison and the other in foster care. I suppose you might call it a mystery laced with motherhood.
The play opens with images on a television monitor and the voice of a young child singing a refrain of “no more monkeys jumping on the bed.” Soon we see daughter Katie (Michelle Kable) sitting to one side of the stage on a seat apparently wrenched from someone’s midlife-mobile, and mother Marybeth (Kim Porter) standing on the other behind a sad-looking set of mini blinds.
Katie has a box filled with letters both to and from her mother. And a burning desire to know more about her past than the strangers who’ve followed the strange case of convicted baby killer Marybeth Paxton in the media. Scenes of Katie exploring her past alternate, and sometimes collide, with scenes of Marybeth doing the same.
Along the way, audience members get to grapple with issues ranging from breastfeeding to mental illness. They witness a cult of celebrity like that seen everyday in the lives of those who follow Nancy Grace just a bit too closely. They watch mother and child wrestle with issues of innocence and guilt, their own and others’.
And they start to wonder. If it could happen to Marybeth, could it happen to me? Is it better to bury the past — or to dig for it? How reliable, really, are things like experts and memories? It’s entirely too much material for a single work, and yet it works — in large measure because it bursts with humor rather than taking itself too seriously. And because of fluid yet finessed direction by Duane Daniels.
I’m less enamored with Daniel’s scenic design. Fond as I am of ivy in real life, it’s more than a little distracting to see it strewn across walls that form the backdrop for a thought-provoking tale. The story feels real, and the plastic plant matter, complete with visible tape — is too fake to be funny.
Shawna Franks gets the plum role of “Woman” and David Weiss the equally malleable “Man” gig in “Munched.” He’s a police officer, physician, lousy husband and more. She’s a nurse, an expert on the speaking circuit and an incredibly funny “hippy dippy” counselor schooled in simply wishing away all things “toxic.” Julian Kaplan is “Young Katie” in brief snippets of film footage. A stuffed animal is just that.
Folks who’ve shot their attention span wad on the likes of “Sponge Bob Square Pants” may deem the work a bit taxing, but those schooled in the ways of masterful storytelling will find “Munched” mesmerizing — leaving the work with just one burning question: Who’s munching who?
Note: “Munched” is being performed through Oct. 22 at Space 55 in Phoenix. Click here for details and ticket information.
Coming up: Art meets Wall Street, Touring the Anne Frank Center in NYC