But for the occasional concept-play or deconstruction of an old classic, Impact Theatre is, at heart, a camp theater company. It recycles actors, plays liberally with sexuality and gender, and traffics in pop culture references. And, in true Sontagian fashion, a lamp at Impact is never just a lamp — it’s a “lamp.” A sun is a “sun” and chickens are “chickens.”
Such is the case in MilkMilkLemonade, a new absurdist production directed by Desdemona Chiang (of Ching Chong Chinaman fame), and written by hot New York playwright du jour, Joshua Conkel. It starts off with all the hallmarks of a 21st-century coming-out narrative. Eleven-year-old Emory (Charlie Cromer) is trapped on a chicken farm in the middle of a Red State, living under the watchful gaze of his cancer-stricken Nanna (Cecele Levinson). From the opening scene, when Emory emerges with Barbie doll in hand, it’s fairly clear where this story is going. The arrival of Elliot (Michael Garrett McDonald), a school bully with a tuxedo fetish, only confirms our suspicions.
But this script has an odd twist in the form of its parallel narrative — about chickens. It turns out that Nanna’s farm isn’t just a small-town fortress run by a grandma who tries to reinstate traditional family values. It’s also a veritable Auschwitz. All of Nanna’s chickens are fattened on grain and eventually carted off to the grinder, where they get chewed, processed, and turned into lunchmeat. Like Emory, they become victims of a fascist regime. Everyone’s fate is sealed.
That setting alone is grist for an eighty-minute storyline that seems predictable at first but bends in all sorts of funky directions. Emory and his favorite chicken, Linda (Sarah Coykendall, another Impact regular), are planning their escape to Broadway, despite Elliot’s protestations. It’s a funny setup that’s actually sort of touching: An eleven-year-old with a gay accent; a closeted tormenter; a fat, sad-eyed hen who becomes the object of fascination. Conkel managed to pack in a hilariously squirmy scene in which Emory and Elliot play “Mom and Dad.” Thus, we get to see their interpretation of how adults behave in a dysfunctional relationship. It’s like something out of a Tennessee Williams‘ play.
Conkel generated the script, but Impact found the right cast to animate it. Cromer makes a believable Emory, with his fine features and small, pliant frame. He seems more comfortable in the role than McDonald does as Elliot, but that’s probably because Elliot is a hazier character. Whereas Conkel developed a fool-proof backstory for his male lead, he saddled the bully with weird narrative devices (e.g., an evil twin trapped in his thigh) that don’t always work. Levinson adds a naturalistic element as Nanna, since she appears to be two generations older than Cromer in real life. The scenes between them could have easily been played for laughs had both actors been twenty-somethings. Instead, we get realistic dialogue between Emory and his grandma. Coykendall gets a bum deal, having to wear a heavy chicken costume for eighty minutes. But she does have one riotous sequence as a chicken shock comedian.
And then, there’s Cindy Im, a company member who has appeared in just about every Impact production of the past year. Here, she steals the show in three minor parts. As “Lady in a Leotard,” she narrates the story, recites the prologue, translates Linda’s chicken clucks, and explains some characters’ actions (like Elliot’s seeming lack of impulse control, which results, of course, from the evil twin in the thigh). As Rochelle, she plays a spider with a fake-ghetto accent — the prototype was either Margaret Cho or Shanaynay from the sitcom Martin. As the human version of Emory’s doll Starlene, she gets her own song-and-dance number, complete with a Casio keyboard strapped around her shoulder. Im has a remarkable voice that, with a little practice, could almost be musical-theater quality. Impact is lucky to have her.
Elements like the spider Rochelle and the Casio keyboard keep MilkMilkLemonade from ever getting too serious or too poignant, even though, like most Impact plays, it has sociological underpinnings. Trying to come out in a repressive small-town environment is no joke, but the company manages to make comedy of it, anyway. Every element of this play has quotation marks around it. The “chickens” — all except Linda, that is — are made of cardboard. The “sun” is an orange pop-out that travels from wall to wall as the play progresses. The set looks like a coloring book: bright, green, grassy hills, a blocky barn, a yellow bale of hay.
And somewhere inside, there’s the grinder.