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Theater Review:

"CALAMITY MEAT," Seanachai Theatre Company at Victory Gardens Theater

BY LUCIA MAURO

Chicago playwright-actor Coby Goss (author of the Osborn Award-winning "Marked Tree") has a talent for writing characters that push actors into ferocious and heartbreaking emotional territory. His latest work, "Calamity Meat" – receiving its world premiere by Seanachai Theatre Company at Victory Gardens – is populated by a band of likable but dangerous rapscallions engaged in a futile con game.

Yet, although this modern band of Travellers, or Irish gypsies in South Carolina, make for juicy dramatic/comedic fodder, Goss does not provide them with a viable motivation or momentum to advance the plot. A seemingly unfinished ending also fails to fit the various disjointed pieces back together. So audiences may leave remembering the rapacious characters but questioning the play’s thematic purpose.

Much of the action is set in the trailer of the opportunistic Starla and her self-doubting husband Cubby, who wants out of his family’s unscrupulous money dealings. Starla hatches a plan with the untrustworthy head of the clan, Oatmeal, whose ulterior motive involves an affair with Starla. Cubby’s clingy mother, Holly, is used as a foil for a heist to take place at DisneyWorld. We later learn that Holly, the wife of Cubby’s late head honcho father, suffered much abuse at the hands of her powerful husband. We’re also introduced to the somewhat loopy, Iagoesque crime-clan wannabe, Sam, who mainly longs for a cool-sounding nickname.

Their plan, which partially involves Starla dressed as a hooker during Halloween at a Disney hotel, goes horribly wrong when the crisis-laden Cubby flies into a jealous rage. Starla’s resulting injuries, however, play into another misguided scheme about extorting money from the Disney company itself. The plot, nevertheless, is difficult to summarize because Goss does not clarify specifically how these desperate Travellers intend to get their money.

Thematically, it appears that Goss is exploring the insider versus outsider dichotomy. Oatmeal reminds Starla, "Outsiders can’t be expected to understand clan ways." And the play primarily revolves around Cubby’s disillusioned belief that he can establish an identity separate from his wandering heritage. Interestingly, "Calamity Meat" addresses the little-known history of the much-persecuted Irish gypsies, who settled in the rural American South in the mid 19th century, and dealt in nomadic occupations including farm labor and peddling.

But Goss loses focus. The fact that Disney is the real target hammers home the point of this mega-plasticized "family values" metaphor for America being just as corrupt and selfish as these crafty Travellers. Yet he both shoves Disney’s familiar pitfalls down audience’s throats while barely scratching the surface of rampant corporate greed and face-saving. There are simply too many stories going on here, and we end up with more of a mish-mash of provocative scenarios than a fine-tuned theatrical satire.

On the other hand, Goss has a sharp knack for dark comedy – especially surrounding Cubby’s ill-fated dog and Cubby’s offbeat sense of justice. These fumbling thieves also encompass centuries of surviving by the seat of their pants. Goss pens futile but sympathetic characters. He simply needs to push the story more forcefully ahead and streamline his varied themes, which tend to go off on zigzagging tangents, to make this a more substantial and meaningful tragicomedy/social commentary.

Director Scott Cummins infuses Seanachai’s production with a wrenching physicality. The whole ensemble demonstrates a wry and full-bodied sense of purpose, especially the multitalented Julia Neary as the heartlessly dissatisfied Starla (trapped in a cheap hell of press-on trailer walls and press-on nails). Brian Hamman’s resentful Cubby, living in the shadow of his brutally famous father, turns in a believable and complex performance, wonderfully balanced by John Dunleavy’s smooth-talking, quietly psychotic Oatmeal.

Laura Jones Macknin’s cultivated cluelessness as the tragic Holly adds pathos to the script’s devilish absurdity, which also materializes in Matt Gibson’s goofily conniving Sam and Don Bender’s gratingly ingratiating Disney representative.

Scenic designer Joey Wade’s appropriately cramped and filthy trailer set – surrounded by a chipped statue of the Virgin Mary, bricks, tires and dead potted plants – powerfully illustrates this family’s suffocating destitution and outcast nature. He also has devised a malleable set, including a separate Disney hotel room. Michelle Mottram’s costumes run the gamut of Holly’s prim lavender suits to Starla’s provocative fuchsia/fishnet getups. They complement Benton Bullwinkel’s textured lighting.

But the script needs, shall I say, a meatier story to propel its intriguing characters forward into the realm of fiery purpose and layered engagement.

Seanchai Theatre Company’s production of "Calamity Meat" runs through June 15 at Victory Gardens Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln. Tickets: $18-$20. Call 773-871-3000 or log onto www.seanachai.org.

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