Like Rude Mechanicals or Salvage Vanguard, Shrewd Productions, known to the fans as The Shrewds, has been creating unique, original pieces that are unlike anything else in the city, but for some reason, they have yet to receive the success that the other two companies have met. Their latest production, however, may have the power to change all that. There previous production, The Long Now, was met with plenty of acclaim and attention, and they’ve returned this year with one of the most bizarre little stories of love and confidence that you’ll see this week with Joshua Conkel’s MilkMilkLemonade. Conkel’s play follows young, gay fifth-grader Emory and his best friend, Linda the chicken, as they both try to survive (in Linda’s case, literally), life on the farm with an overbearing grandma, Nanna, and the schoolyard bully, Eliot. Along the way, they meet a treacherous spider, a parasitic twin, and a ton of chickens to create one of the most original, but delightful plays to hit the scene in some time, given a fine production by the folks at Shrewd, led by director Jason Hays.
When you take your seat the Vortex for MilkMilkLemonade, you’re instantly plunged into a world of childhood innocence. Nick Renaud designs the sets as if they were pulled directly from a child’s imagination. In the center of the action is a large, shiny red barn that looks to have been colored by crayons, with paper hand-shaped chickens scattered around, and over the course of the play, this transform into a number of different backdrops, from a stand-up comedy stage, to a chicken processing machine, to a classic country home, and each one has its own certain whimsy. The costume design, by Pam Friday though basic for the most part, continues this whimsical feel, with Emory showing up in short-shorts and a carebear shirt, transforming the twenty-something Xaq Webb into a believable fifth-grader.
The main character of Emory offers up a series of challenges for any actor. The actor taking on the role must first make us believe that he is five years old, as well as homosexual, while at the same time creating credible chemistry between himself and a giant chicken, all while never going too cliché or over the top. Xaq Webb is more than up to the task, carrying his character with a gentle sensitivity, his friendly smile warm and inviting, and yet offers plenty of adolescent attitude, pouting and running off to his best friend Linda at the first sign of trouble. Linda is another complex character, a human-sized chicken with hopes of a stand-up comedy career, but Joe Hartman brings plenty of cockiness and bravado, strutting his stuff with panache. His performance becomes cringe-worthy as Linda begins to fall apart near the end, breaking hearts with his jerky physicality.
One performance that’s easy to overlook, however, is Shannon Grounds as the Lady in the Leotard, but at the end of the day, she plays one of the most important roles in the play. She shows up, twitching nervously , announcing that she would acting as a guide through the wacky world of the play. When she isn’t acting as a parasitic twin or a poisonous spider, she helps to translate chicken clucks into English, gives voice to inanimate objects, and performs numerous other odd jobs that heighten the viewing experience. Grounds changes hats with unbelievable skill, transforming herself with each performance, giving a diverse and dynamic performance that might just be the highlight of the piece.
MilkMilkLemonade features many homosexual characters, but it doesn’t focus solely on that fact. The play is at its heart a coming-of-age tale, turning its lens on how Emory awakens to the world around him and its hardships, giving up the playful elements of his youth for the difficulties of adulthood. It handles the homosexuality of its characters with affection and honesty, never chastising or demonizing, but also never throwing it into the audience’s face. Conkel handles each of its elements with a steady hand, balancing each element like a Jenga tower, which may wobble every once in a while, but firmly stands through the entire go-round, and director Hays, as well as the entire cast and crew, are able to add their own pieces to this tower, embellishing it in beautiful ways while always keeping it standing firm.
MilkMilkLemonade is playing through September 26th at the Vortex Theater. To purchase tickets, and to find out more information about the cast and crew, visit the Shrewds website at shrewdproductions.com.