Lemonade for grown-ups

Kaleena Newman and Rod Amez in Milk, Milk Lemonade (Photo: John Groseclose)

You might think, after reading brief histories of favorite childhood rhymes taped to brick walls in the courtyard of the original Tempe Performing Arts Center just off Mill Avenue, that you were about to enjoy a charming bit of theater for children. But you’d be wrong. Terribly, terribly wrong.

Look a bit closer and you’ll see that the comics interspersed with these lovely literary snippets feature not only folksy chickens and their farmers, but also choice language not appropriate for the “chicken nuggets” set. That’s half the fun of seeing “Milk, Milk Lemonade,” being presented by Stray Cat Theatre through Sat, Dec. 17.

“Milk, Milk Lemonade” is one of just a few really smart works of gay theater, according to Ron May, artistic director for Stray Cat Theatre in Tempe — who also praises its smart (and rare) treatment of gender issues. “Milk, Milk Lemonade” was written by Joshua Conkel and is directed for Stray Cat Theatre by Louis Farber.

It’s a brilliant piece of theater, full of rich ideas and language, that makes a point without leaving audience members feeling they’re on the wrong end of a lone pointed finger like the one a scolding parent might give an errant child for deeds deemed inappropriate.

“Milk, Milk Lemonade” follows the adventures to two boys publicly at odds but privately involved. One has big and terrifying emotions its hard to control short of setting fires. Another loves to ribbon dance, play with one particular doll and pal around with a chicken who’s growing plumper as processing day approaches. Both sport anatomical props at one point — a bit too racy, perhaps, for your garden variety theater-goer.

As the play opens, we see a big red barn with sliding doors sometimes used by the boys to hide their pubescent playtimes. Also a dozen or so folk art chickens, wooden and brightly painted until transformed by a giant processing machine into something you’ve likely ordered at the local drive-through. It’s an appetizing bit of theater on a Valley menu sometimes lacking real flavor.

L to R: Molly Kurtz, Michael Thompson, Rod Amez, Kaleena Newman and Sam Wilkes in Milk, Milk Lemonade (Photo: John Groseclose)

“Milk, Milk Lemonade” features a cast of five — Rod Amez (Elliot), Molly Kurtz (Linda), Kaleena Newman (Emory), Michael Thompson (Lady in a Leotard) and Sam Wilkes (Nanna). Their collective acting credits include works with Actors Theatre, ASU, Childsplay, Nearly Naked Theatre, Phoenix Theatre, Space 55 and Valley Youth Theatre. All deliver a strong performance, eliciting a bevy of belly laughs from happy theater goers.

After opening the play with a familiar childhood ditty, Lady in a Leotard ponders aloud. Does the body rule the mind or does the mind rule the body? Are we our bodies or merely living inside them? “Don’t think too hard,” she cautions. And we don’t — but we all get the message. Bodies matter, and we never leave home without them.

There’s a nostalgic twist to “Milk, Milk Lemonade” that’s especially endearing. Or frightening, I suppose, depending on which parts of your own childhood it conjures. References to Albertson’s and Mountain Dew are perfectly harmless, as are musical homages to “Annie” and various songs circa the disco era. Statements like “use your words” and various episodes of passive aggressive behavior, maybe less so.

There’s plenty of bullying, with words and fists, in “Milk, Milk Lemonade.” “Real men” do this or that. Boys who don’t conform are “little girls,” “sissies” or something worse. Only the chicken stays above the fray, delivering some of the play’s best dialogue as she considers the relative merits of spontaneity and surprise over manifest destiny and role conformity.

The Stray Cat program for “Milk, Milk Lemonade” includes a dandy yellow insert full of fun chicken facts, and a revelation by Farber that he uncovered more than 84 different chicken songs while searching for pre-show tunes to up the audience fun factor. Life is hard. There’s lots of hurt. “Milk, Milk Lemonade” makes that clear. Sometimes you’ve just gotta get up and dance.

— Lynn

Note: “Milk, Milk Lemonade” is not appropriate for young audiences, but does make for a fun date night or outing with grown-up friends. So does “Hunter Gatherers” by Peter Sinn Nachtreib, which Ron May directs for Actors Theatre of Phoenix Dec. 30-Jan. 15. For more family-friendly offerings, click here.

Coming up: Art that’s out of this world

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