Director (when she's not a writer) Melita Rowston does Brooklyn-based Josh Conkel's surreal and absurd Milk Milk Lemonade proud, with her current production at New Theatre. It's by no means a complex work thematically or ideationally, but it is structurally, drawing on musical, choreographic and other performative disciplines. While it has a rather dark heart (that's not only eminently translatable to growing up gay in rural Australia especially, but more broadly, to the ignominious situation of falling through the cracks between social norms), it's also a tremendous amount of outrageous, Priscilla-style fun. I say Priscilla, but this is grunge drag. Grunge or not, though, there's nothing like a gruff-voiced male grandma, or a woman dressed up as a family-sized chicken to lubricate one's rusty comedy faculty; rust, because there's not nearly enough to laugh about, at, or with, in theatre, these days. Where's the rule which states serious subjects must be addressed in a serious way? Let's have more seriously funny examinations, which can sometimes prove more probing, thought-provoking and influential. And more theatre, like this, that's bursting at the seams with utterly unpredictable surprises.
What Rowston and co have done most successfully is imbue all that happen on stage with a particular energy that's sustained. The energy emanates, in part (I reckon), from the fact that Conkel's not even thirty and, in part, from an exceptionally talented and committed cast and creative team. For example, Antoinette Barbouttis has let her macabre imagination run rampant with her all-in-one chicken processing plant, which looks like some kind of unholy hybrid between Mr Squiggle's rocket and a Mexican oven. With Kent Rowston's circular saw-like sfx, a theatre-of-the-mind chicken massacre becomes nightmarishly real. As an aspiring, ethically motivated vegetarian, I felt suitably chastened and guilty to catch myself laughing, fiendishly.
One of the most significant contributions comes from choreographer, Angela Blake (assisted by Joel Thomas). There are many opportunities afforded (thanks to the inclusion of the odd power ballad) for parodical dance moves and Blake goes for broke. My only reservation being the chicken dance was indulgently over-extended. It's funny, for sure. For a while.
But behind, beyond and below the thick-as-a-brick veneer of full-on fun, games and 'pantomonium' that prevails, there's the not-so-funny business of growing up gay, or 'twisted' in a straight, straight world. As if it's not universally difficult enough coming to terms with one's own burgeoning sexuality, or difference, or individuality, to grapple with it while also dealing (as best one can,) with disapproval and bigotry is not to be wished upon anyone. Conkel's methodical madness suggests humour as a means of donning metaphorical armour and the happy by-product is it disarms the audience, no matter what its prejudices might be, rendering us vulnerable to reasonable, humane propositions some, regrettably, may not otherwise so much as entertain, let alone accept. The unrelenting, almost anarchic and certainly non-linear craziness on stage points the finger at such ridiculousness: nothing is as phantasmagorical as man's inhumanity to man; not least, hetero sapiens inhumanity to homo sapiens.
Leah Donovan is Lady In A Leotard; a narrator of sorts who, for some unfathomable reason, is liable to adopt an American, Russian, or other accent, at the drop of a hat. It's all part and parcel, seemingly, of Conkel's kookiness. Effeminate (now there's a hetero-loaded descriptor for you) Emory is coming of age and, by tiny, millipedal steps, not leaps and bounds, struggling to come out. Mark Dessaix dazzles in the role, whether judged against comedic, choreographic or dramatic benchmarks. Pete Nettell is (his) Nanna, a varicose-veined, chain-smoking, oxygen-dependent old crow, with an emphysemic bark that, in her case is matched by bite. Sarah Easterman is quite a chick. Chick-en. Never has poultry proved so percipient. Being free range seems to have opened her mind and transformed her into a highly aspirational hen, making it all the more tragic when her ambition is truncated by processing (much like refugees to Australia). She's Emory's best friend. Elliot (Kieran Foster) is Emory's challenged near neighbour, but their relationship is complicated by Elliot's public bullying and private buggery. It's the kind of endemic, ingrained, institutionalised hypocrisy we saw exposed so graphically and brutally in American Beauty.
Conkel makes the whole world look fucking deranged and 'what's wrong with this picture?' askew. And it is. It is until such time as we refuse to settle for mere toleration (though that'd be a start) and insist on celebration. Embrace. We need to be able to live, no matter what our predilections, according to Polonius' dictum.
While not flawless, Rowston et al have channelled the spirit of this work and challenged us to get with the programme. This production has merit and, above all is as mad as a meataxe.
Milk Milk Lemonade
by Joshua Conkel
Director Melita Rowston
Venue: New Theatre | 542 King Street Newtown NSW
Dates: 5 Feb - 2 March, 2013
Tickets: $32 – $27