By Joshua Conkel. Directed by Isaac Butler. Under St. Marks. (CLOSED)
Full disclosure: Our own Isaac Butler directed this production. In this unique case, I think I should let the reviews speak for themselves, so I'll keep the summary brief. Critics like the elements of children's theater in Joshua Conkel's MilkMilkLemonade to tell its story about a gay 11-year-old boy who lives on a farm with his grandmother. Critics rave about the cast, too, with the only complaint about the production being that some feel it drags a bit in the middle.
(Jon Sobel) Meredith Steinberg's energetic and funny choreography deserves mention, and the choices of music are spot-on - how can you not love a show that features "I've Never Been to Me"? And, while the whole cast shines, it wouldn't be fair to skip a mention of Nikole Beckwith, who plays a constantly terrified narrator/chorus figure in a black leotard. Among other things, she provides translations of Linda's chicken-speak in a deadly-funny synthesized-computer voice, plays a creepy evil twin, and dances the part of Elliot's beloved Barbie-type doll. There's so much to recommend this show, so many show-stopping bits and scenes, that it was standing room only last night at the tiny UNDER St. Marks theater. (Beckwith and Harder's spider scene is not to be missed.) It runs only through Sept. 26, so get your tickets now.
(Martin Denton) Conkel's play is bitterly funny and broadly satiric, abetted in both of these achievements by director Isaac Butler's superbly accomplished production of it. Highly theatricalized design elements (set by Jason Simms, costumes by Sydney Maresca, lighting by Sabrina Braswell, and sound by Butler) create a suitably surreal environment for this crazy story, where a lady in a black leotard translates Linda's clucking into English from the side of the stage and characters are prone to burst into song or dance numbers at pretty much any time. It's an antic, absurdist ambience that keeps us enough removed from the story so that its emotional center isn't unbearably sad and also helps focus us on the troubling way we Americans deal with issues like sexuality, identity, and self-actualization. The cast is exquisite. Andy Phelan is immensely likeable as Emory, and he and Jess Barbagallo (the young actress who plays Elliot) are very convincing as little boys. Jennifer Harder, brilliantly costumed by Maresca, is splendid as the wise Linda. Nicole Beckwith underplays her various tasks as the (for want of a better term) emcee or interlocutor of the piece, the Lady in a Leotard. And Michael Cyril Creighton gives us a fine comic creation in Nanna, imbuing a character that could simply be a walking sight gag with guts and heart and deep, deep disappointment. Conkel manages to cover a great deal of ground within this one-act play. He uses pop culture references like a kind of poetic shorthand; it's fascinating that people as different from one another as, say, 10-year-old Emory and, say, me, can parse and process the same random song and movie and TV nostalgia. Here's the common ground of American culture these days. Can this trivia that we share help us understand each other just a little better?
New York Post A
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) By the time I got to Under St. Marks last night, the waiting list to get into "MilkMilkLemonade" was up to 25 people. Quite a feat considering the theater has a capacity of about 50. Clearly the show is on to something. And that something is old-fashioned stuff like, you know, a funny and poignant play, inventive direction and ace acting. In the end theater isn't much more than this, and it shouldn't be any less. Joshua Conkel's play includes a pair of characters who are in fifth grade but behind the colorful, stylized cardboard set lurks a show about honesty, friendship and heartache. Conkel and his director, Isaac Butler (who also runs the Parabasis blog and -- full disclosure -- has nicely plugged my own blogging on it), have created a world that feels self-contained and of a piece -- even as it touches on various styles of humor, from camp to slapstick -- but also is incredibly open-hearted and generous.
That Sounds Cool A
(Aaron Riccio) Everything--from Jason Simms's childish flat of a barn (complete with flaps that show the progression of the sun) to the hand-print chickens that make up Nanna (Michael Cyril Creighton)'s farm, to the fact that Lady doubles as Elliot's evil parasitic twin or even that Emory and Elliot are only in fifth grade (which explains their vivid dream sequences and fragile emotions)--yes, everything is designed to subvert our ideas of "normalcy" so that we can honestly listen, without attaching labels. For instance: "Do any of yous know how hard it is to get up here and take a chance on something? To be your authentic self in front of God and America and all you carnivores?" Honest words, even if they're spoken by Emory's best friend, Linda (Jennifer Harder), a giant chicken who dreams of doing stand-up like Andrew Dice Clay. In all honesty, things should be this obvious: you act the way you feel, and shame on all the Nannas out there who quote Leviticus to their children and burn their dolls and scowl at their dancing and their dreams, determined that they play the role of "boy," no matter what. So Butler emphasizes Conkel's writing by casting men to play the female (or would-be female) parts and women to play the men, demonstrating that if it's just a matter of "playing" a role, anyone can do it. (Which is not to say that anyone could play these roles: for instance Barbagallo is quite convincing--and a little terrifying--as a bully with some serious transference issues.)
New York Press A
(Mark Peikert) The bare bones plot may sound like the sort of tedious exercise in curdled innocence so popular with downtown theater companies, but what elevates MilkMilkLemonade is playwright Joshua Conkel’s eye for the telling detail and pitch-perfect ear for one-liners; I could fill an entire review just quoting my favorite lines. Emory and Linda don’t just chat and share confidences; they practice a hilariously choreographed version of “Anything Goes.” Not to just cover, though—the Harper’s Bazaar version that played under the opening credits of The Boys in the Band. And Elliot, despite his pyromaniac tendencies, has a surprising obsession with dressing up in a tux for the prom in a few years. As funny as Conkel’s script is (and it’s among the funnier shows I’ve seen this year), director Isaac Butler and his brilliant cast have taken his lines and situations and run with them. If Nikole Beckwith steals the show as the narrator who translates Linda’s clucks into common English, plays the role of Eliot’s parasitic twin living in his thigh and impersonates one very angry and scary spider named Rochelle, it’s simply that she’s less hindered by the demands of the plot. She can be—and is—as outrageous as possible, and scores laughs on practically every line that comes out of her mouth. But there isn’t one cast member who doesn’t seem like a star in the making (a rarity in any production, let alone a downtown one).
(Li Cornfeld) MilkMilkLemonade is noteworthy for its depiction of a young generation of rural queers. Without making light of the challenges Emory will face as he grows up, it suggests those hardships are difficult and complicated, but ultimately surmountable. There is no utopic solution or angry cultural critique... Make no mistake: MilkMilkLemonade, which takes its title from a dirty children's rhyme, explores its overarching themes (sex, bodies, fate) through playful action, not heady analysis or sentimental preaching. That renders its critique especially effective. This is a play with card-board chickens taped to the walls (a fabulous touch). If it's worth noting that the play includes cross-gendered casting, it's only to emphasize that this is not drag. Each of the characters is played with unwavering integrity by the talented cast. Phelan and Barbagallo deserve special credit for meeting the challenge of portraying young boys without condescending to their roles. Emory and Elliot are smart and funny, neither too immature nor overly sophisticated. Phelan and Barbagallo do 11-year-olds everywhere proud.
Time Out New York A
(Helen Shaw) Conkel’s rib-tickler—unfolding on a kindergarten-bright-cardboard poultry farm—knows just how to play with two-dimensionality (a recurring joke is how bad the jokes are) and how to melt our resistance to its filthiness. Despite our best impulses, we find ourselves rooting for nasty neighborhood kid Eliot (Jess Barbagallo) even as he sexually harasses our fey hero, Emory (Andy Phelan). Will Emory get on the talent show Reach for the Stars? Will he defeat his emphysemic, fowlcidal grandmother (a fearless Michael Cyril Creighton) and save the clucker he loves best? We haven’t the breath to worry. By the time the Lady in the Leotard (Nikole Beckwith)—part Our Town stage manager, part parasitic twin—turns herself into a poultry processor, you’ll be so busy apologizing to your neighbor for smacking him during a giggle fit that you’ll be past caring.
Back Stage B+
(Paul Menard) Burgeoning gender-play fantasies crash against prescribed societal roles, particularly when Emory and Elliot's game of house transforms into a trailer-park Tennessee Williams scene. But while Conkel giddily flits from theme to theme, one wishes he would tighten the reins on his own writing, opting for a bit more structure than exploration. But that's where director Isaac Butler and his exceptional cast come in. Except for a few missteps (the production sags in the middle), Butler's brisk direction milks the script for all it's worth. Furthermore, the talented cast serves up scintillating performances that transcend Conkel's material, most notably Nikole Beckwith as an ill-at-ease narrator. Of course, playing around in the show's naughty dramaturgical sandbox gets pretty messy—but, just like on the playground, sometimes getting dirty is more fun than following the rules.
The Village Voice C+
(Andy Propst) Conkel's very adult kiddie play is thoughtfully enhanced not only by a particularly shrewd soundtrack but also by director Isaac Butler's cross-gender casting of Nanna and Elliot (a choice that beautifully underscores the play's themes of sexual identity). MilkMilkLemonade also benefits from a winning performance from Andy Phelan as Emory. But a surfeit of cutesy gimmickry—such as the performance artist–like narrator who translates chicken clucks and plays the evil twin in Elliot's leg—is cloying and, ultimately, undoes this potentially incisive and entertaining glimpse into how some gay kids come of age in America's heartland.
Blogcritics A+ 14; Nytheatre.com A+ 14; New York Post A 13; That Sounds Cool A 13; New York Press A 13; offoffonline A 13; TONY A 13; Back Stage B+ 11; Village Voice C+ 8; TOTAL: 112/9 = 12.44 (A-)