The first impression of the St. Mark's Theatre, home till recently of Clay McLeod Chapman's bizarre Pumpkin Pie Show, was discouraging. For the place was a dump. Yes, many Off-Off-Broadway theaters are dumps that put on good shows in spite of everything, but the St. Mark's is singular. A flight of cruddy steps led to another flight of cruddy steps, a landing made soppy by a leaking A/C unit, and then a cellar that smelled of mildew. Fortunately this unhappy setting turned out to be perfect for Chapman's brief play/performance/fever dream, which delves with creepy humor into at least four varieties of schizophrenogenic isolation and alienation.
In the first act, johnny pumpkinseed, a desperately lonely farm boy finds gratification in a field of pumpkins - what else was he to do, especially after his father used a pumpkin and a corn cob to demonstrate the facts of life? In the sad and crazy river trip, a widowed father teaches his kids a ghastly new skill with as much patience as he taught them to ride a bike or throw a baseball. "Hy-po-therm-i-a," he says, teaching them a new word. Chatterbox gave us a psycho, sentient, wildly jealous dummy played by Max Moore, with Chapman as his cowed ventriloquist; rodeo inferno featured Chapman as a paranoid rodeo clown/geek who is appallingly aware of a raging, devouring bull monster beneath the cheers of the stadium crowd. With the exception of the bland, middle-class Ward Cleaver Dad in river trip, and the terrorized ventriloquist, the rubber-faced and hyperkinetic Chapman played his characters as hybrids of Ernest P. Worrell and an evangelical preacher exhorting the fallen. His words were mesmerizing eruptions of nutty horror, especially during rodeo inferno. The music complemented the action perfectly as Joshua Camp and Michael Hearst alternated between organ, accordion, drums, toy piano, washboard, theramin, and a few other unfamiliar instruments and created a neurotic, Klezmer-New Age sound bed. The lyrics were fairly straightforward - the night began with the four men, all dressed in white shirt and pants, intoning "The Pumpkin Pie Show!" with the elan of Andy Kaufman announcing, "Here I come to save the day!" The lighting was appropriately flat and bilious, the light of a psych ward's anteroom. The sound was also enhanced by the room's dankness; imagine how voices carried in the Marquis de Sade's jail cell. The Pumpkin Pie Show, brief and loony as it was, did what theater was supposed to do, which is shake up a few of the brain cells, even for an afternoon.
The Pumpkin Pie Show will be reincarnated as rise perverts rise at The Red Room Theater, on 85 East 4th Street, starting September 28. Call (212) 539-7686.
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Copyright 2001 Arlene McKanic