Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Astoria Performing Arts Center Kicks Off 10th Season with Sensational and Surreal Piece

 By Georgina Young-Ellis

Jennifer Harder, Nikole Beckwith and Andy Phelan
It’s hard to find words to describe Astoria Performing Arts Center’s production of MilkMilkLemonade; yet, brilliant, hysterical, surreal and mind-blowing are a few that come to mind. To be more specific, it is a performance piece that defies all expectations and preconceived notions of what theater is or should be. Fortunately, the narrator, or, as the program informs us, the “Lady in the Leotard,” who steps out at the beginning to introduce the play, gives us fair warning of what’s in store by her shell-shocked demeanor. It’s as if she’s been living in the reality of the play all too long and has somehow been traumatized by it. She informs us that she’ll be translating for the talking chicken. Talking chicken? Yes. Our protagonist, Emory, an eleven-year old boy, played by grown-up actor Andy Phelan, lives on a farm with his infirm grandmother, and his refuge is Linda the chicken, his best friend in whom he confides his heart’s desires. She is the one who understands him and supports his dreams of Broadway and reality-show fame. Not so the case with his oxygen machine-bound, chain smoking Nanna, who takes away his favorite doll and tells him it’s wrong to be effeminate, to be “different.” She predicts that he’ll never get off the farm; and she murders chickens (it is, after all, a chicken farm). She’s happy to discover, however, that he’s friends with the scrappy, tough kid down the street, Elliot, played by Jess Barbagallo. Elliot torments Emory while secretly in love with him. Together, they “play house:” bizarre, Tennessee Williams-esque parodies of sad adults stuck in hum-drum realities. They also share some kind of sexual relationshipto what extent it isn’t quite clear even though they appear “nude” together at one point, little fake genitalia sewn on to their underwear. Elliot is ashamed of his sexual tendencies – equally a bully and a lover. Ultimately, he is also betrayer and redeemer.

The versatility of the five actors who make up the cast is remarkable. Andy Phelan as Emory effortlessly transforms from sweet, joyful young boy to tragic housewife in his play-acting with Elliot. Ms. Barbagallo is so convincing as a male, my theater companions had to look twice at their programs to confirm the reverse. Her character is alternately twitchy and tortured, tough and tender. Michael Cyril Creighton as Nanna is eerily precise as a bitter, dying woman. Jennifer Harder, who won the 2010 Innovative Theater Award for Best Supporting Actress in her role as Linda when she portrayed it in the original production, is astonishingly bird-like in her body movements one minute the next, she’s a bawdy, Brooklyn stand-up comediennethe chicken’s alter ego. She’s funny and heartbreaking, riveting us every moment she’s on stage. Finally, our narrator, chicken translator, sound effects provider, and portrayer of evil ghetto spider, Lady in a Leotard Nikole Beckwith, exhibits the most wonderful physicality. She seems at first so stiff and awkward, then in her many incarnations, becomes flexible and freaky in myriad ways.

MilkMilkLemonade is completely unpredictable and utterly unlike anything you’ve ever experienced in the theater. As fellow audience member Teresa Barile concisely commented, “It was the best play I’ve ever seen.” APAC Executive Director Taryn Sacramone remarked that in its brief run at UNDER St. Mark’s Theater last year audiences were turned away. Now, there’s a chance to see it under the direction of newcomer to the show, José Zayas, as well as to experience it on the colorful, child-like and fantastical set designed by Jason Simms. Tickets are available at or at 212-352-3101 and the show runs through November 13th, Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm and Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm. Please be advised that due to the mature content of the play, no-one under the age of sixteen will be admitted.

The program notes carry a quote from Artistic Director Tom Wojtunik who chose MilkMilkLemonade for APAC’s tenth anniversary season. “I’m thrilled for APAC to bring this terrific new play, with the original cast, to Astoria audiences, and to give it a much-deserved extended run in New York City.” Referring to the gay youth who all too often feel disenfranchised from society to tragic results, he continues, “I beg you, please, let’s work together to make sure the Emorys of this world have an opportunity to dream big.”