Bec Willett is an Australian, Chicago-based director, designer, educator, and writer. She has worked on projects with an array of Chicago theater companies, including 20% Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, City Lit, Dandelion Theatre, Prologue Theatre, and Waltzing Mechanics. To find out more about her work and upcoming projects, please visit becwillett.com.
Pictured: Ensemble of BARBECUE APOCALYPSE. Photo by Zen Orchid Photography.
By Bec Willett
The legend of suburbia: a place where the smell of grilled meat wafts through identical houses atop manicured emerald lawns. Where people go to live out their American Dream in beige and pastel. Where you’re only as good as what your neighbor doesn’t have. It’s here that the Cuckoo’s Theater Project’s production of Matt Lyle’s BARBECUE APOCALYPSE takes place.
On the deck of Deb and Mike’s (Emily Lindberg and Kyle Burch) ticky-tacky house, a barbecue is taking place and the whole crew is invited. Hipster tastemakers Ash (Daniel Shtivelberg) and Lulu (Elena Tubridy) are the Joneses Deb and Mike long to keep up with. Yet while Lulu is sexually frustrated, Ash is more focused on what’s trending on Twitter than his love life. Win (Felix Abidor) desperately clings to outdated gender roles, striving to embody “the guy all the men want to be and all the women want to be with,” with a teen-like desperation transparent to most of the 30-somethings of the group. His girlfriend, however, is younger; a 20-something wannabe Rockette, Gloria (Ashley Greenwood) is bursting with the naiveté of the privileged, young and beautiful. Employing a before and after structure when the apocalypse arrives at the end of the first act, these petty obsessions of American suburbia are put in stark relief with the need for survival.
From the design to performances, this production has a great grasp on the comedic timing of this script, yet it’s those artists who understand how Lyle wields language to cover insecurity that are able to coax the most laughs. There’s always a core of truth to Shtivelberg’s Ash and Greenwood’s Glory, who take their obsessions – social media and musical theatre respectively – very seriously. With such satirical facsimiles, it’s hard not to laugh at them and by proxy, ourselves. It’s even easier to laugh when the other characters try to compete. An especially delightful physical comedic moment erupts when Deb, in her eagerness to appear young and cool, attempts to launch herself over the same deck fence that Glory has just been lifted over with some ease. Let’s just say she doesn’t quite make it. Lighting designer Michael Joseph further emphasizes these laughably petty desires by – literally – highlighting moments in which the characters feel they’ve had a win with beam-me-up-Scotty asides.
The language of Lyle’s script may be tightly woven, but structurally there are gaps – namely in the second act. While director Marc James demonstrates a great sense of the pace in the moment-to-moment work, he doesn’t manage to drive the narrative tension through to the end, leaving the second act to plateau rather than climax. Similarly, many of the design elements in the latter half fail to further the stakes of the situation set up so well by the first. Where the initial, pre-apocalyptic set and costumes evoke a specific middle-class suburbia, the second act’s post-apocalyptic one is more generalized, with nets arbitrarily scattered around the set, and the cast now adorned with dirt, but dressed in jungle-colored, uncannily clean clothing.
Cuckoo’s production of BARBECUE APOCALYPSE has some struggles and some wins. Even though the second half would benefit from clearer stakes, the sense of pace, and Greenwood and Shtivelberg’s focused performances make for overall production that is funny, quick and confident.
BARBECUE APOCALYPSE runs June 18th – July 21st. For more information visit thecuckoostheaterproject.com.