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Theater Review:

"COOKING WITH LARD" at Lifeline Theatre

BY LUCIA MAURO

It takes a lot of skill and talent to craft lovably quirky characters. But incorporating those eccentric figures into a vital and engaging story demands relentless attention to believable relationship developments, compelling motivations and logical plot progressions. In their new comedy, "Cooking with Lard" – receiving its world premiere at Lifeline Theatre – playwrights Cindy Hanson and Cheryl Norris – don’t quite know what to do with their wild Texan busybody creations. So instead of writing them into a cohesive play, they fling them into a bunch of zany scenarios -- often two at a time.

What results is a series of kooky snippets performed by a discombobulating array of cheerleaders, little old ladies and an animal rights protester in a small-town diner. Hanson and Norris, members of the witty Sweat Girls writing-performance ensemble, have proven their mastery of the off-kilter dramatized essay format. Sot it’s quite surprising that they’ve taken such a sloppy approach to full-fledged playwriting.

"Cooking with Lard," while set in a Texas diner called Addie’s Café, really could take place anywhere. After all, no synergy or camaraderie happens at this uneventful eatery because the four main actresses are cast in multiple roles and, therefore, can only be on stage in limited numbers -- mainly in pairs. Besides being a prime catalyst for confusion, the role shifting prevents audiences from embarking on any sort of emotional journey with these sporadic characters. Few return and, those who do, experience little or no transformation. Ann Bartek’s detailed working diner set is wasted on this static comedy.

The play concerns the murder of a man, who is found in his trailer suffocated by a strip of beef jerky. His abused wife, El Rita, is the prime suspect since she’s skipped town. Only the world-weary Addie (who is obsessed with Jim Nabors) may know where she is. But we don’t even see Addie or El Rita until the end. By that time, it’s not really clear what type of dramatic rewards await us. And, sadly, El Rita’s eventual outpouring of her tragic life comes across as cliched.

For 150 interminable minutes, audiences get to meet a gaggle of wacky women chewin’ the fat about small-town life and the possible whereabouts of El Rita. The good-hearted Gerry seems to run the diner for the largely invisible Addie. We first get an earful of Gerry’s straitlaced sister’s marital woes, followed by two girls from the high school drill team doing a suggestive routine with large, inflatable Oscar Mayer wieners. One of those girls is the mousy Lomalee, daughter of the local beautician who reads "hair-o-scopes" (i.e. she predicts the future by examining customers’ hairdos). But their stories just fizzle out.

Then we meet two elderly ladies who escape from a nursing home to re-live memories of Addie’s Café. One of them suffers a severe gastronomic episode, which is initially mistaken for a heart attack; in another rambling scene, two polyester-clad women gossip while playing bingo. And so the disjointed scenarios continue – anchored by the inexplicably bizarre through-line of Betty June, a mentally unbalanced vegetarian who boycotts Addie’s carnivore-friendly fare.

Frances Limoncelli’s direction suffers from an uneven script – veering wildly from labored to madcap. The actresses, Katie McLean and Kathleen Powers -- along with Sweat Girls Martie Sanders and Dorothy Milne (Lifeline’s artistic director) – flex their versatile comedic-caricature muscles and, for the most part, prove their chameleon bravura. But their multiple roles are ultimately pointless. Unlike "Greater Tuna," a comedy in which two actors achieve harrowing quick-change feats at breakneck speed, "Cooking with Lard" lingers gratuitously in the realm of over-the-top character sketches. EvenJane Bagnall’s flashy costumes can’t save this show.

In general, the play advocates personal freedom and favors the breakdown of socially prescribed inhibitions. But these messages don’t ring loud and clear or connect to El Rita’s sorry saga. "Lard’s" creators seem to be suffering from clogged creative arteries.

"Cooking with Lard" runs through Aug. 26 at Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood. Tickets: $15-$18. Call 773-761-4477.

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