Single Carrot Theatre has returned to the work of theater maverick Charles Mee, who doesn't just create plays of genre-stretching originality, but also publishes them online so anyone can have free access.
His "Hotel Cassiopeia," a non-linear piece focusing on reclusive artist Joseph Cornell, inspired a penetrating Single Carrot production directed by Genevieve de Mahy in 2012. De Mahy, now the company’s artistic director, is also at the helm for a less compelling, if admirably propulsive, staging of Mee's "Utopia Parkway," inspired by a Chinese tale from the 4th century.
Mee places the action in the New York City borough of Queens, where a Widow (Tracey Farrar) survives a robbery attempt, thanks to the intervention of a presumptuous Old Man (Paul Diem) and his uncouth Boy (Elliott Rauh). Her rescuers aren't satisfied with thanks, but have marriage on their minds (and bodies).
There's a lot more, including a dark back story to the dual cases of widowhood; a murder plot that goes terribly awry; and justice (or vengeance) from beyond the grave. This absurdist fairy tale-fantasy bounces in pinball fashion from incident to incident (a judge's lecture on torture has a timely sting, and a recitation of quotations from old tombstone inscriptions is especially potent).
And just about everything calls for a song in this musical morality tale. The lyrics are supplied by Mee as part of the script. The music for the Single Carrot staging comes from Faye Chiao, who is enjoying a busy career while working on her doctorate at the Peabody Institute.
The composer has crafted an effective pastiche that covers assorted pop genres, and has provided vivid instrumentation that, especially in percussive underlining of key lines of text, evokes something of Chinese opera.
The Single Carrot staging, colorfully designed by Michael Kirby and costumed by Heather C. Jackson, seizes on the play’s rich imagery (there is even a bit of smell-o-rama as a character starts cooking a meal).
And there's some vivid acting, especially by Diem, who gives the Old Man a predatory, hips-go-first stride; Rauh, who, sporting shorts and suspenders, crouches and leaps like a long-caged monkey suddenly let loose; and Lien Le as Girl, the widow's widowed daughter-in-law (multiple performers sometimes take on this role, emphasizing how the story is really about more than one victim).
For the musical numbers, staged in vivid fashion by Britt Olsen-Ecker, actors play the instruments, more or less effectively. But most of the singing lacks polish, and that takes a sizable toll on the production. Some really good voices would make this parkway sound a lot more utopian.