Plays look at desperation of cannibalism in oh-so-civilized way

April 17, 1991|By J. Wynn Rousuck

Just when we think we're becoming civilized, cannibalism rears its ugly head -- again.

On screen we've had "Eating Raoul," "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover" and, most recently, "The Silence of the Lambs." On stage there was the saga of the homicidal singing barber, "Sweeney Todd."

And now local producer and director Mark Redfield brings us two rarely produced looks at the subject: Albert Innaurato's "The Transfiguration at Benno Blimpie" and Slawomir Mrozek's "Out at Sea," currently being presented at St. John's Church on St. Paul Street.

Though the production values are limited, and a few of the actors in the minor roles aren't up to the level of the leads, it's worth the trip to see the unusually talented Brian P. Chetelat, who stars in both works. (Be warned, however, it took guts to stage these scripts, and some will find it takes guts to sit through them.)

What's intriguing about these short plays is that they don't present cannibalism as the breakdown of civilization. Instead, they present highly civilized cannibals.

This is particularly true of Mr. Innaurato's Benno Blimpie, who is far more refined and cultured than anyone else on stage. Mr. Chetelat is moving and sympathetic as misunderstood Benno, an obese, working-class Italian boy.

Benno's classmates call him names and beat him up. He is even berated by his own crude family -- his father (Chris Wise), a gambler who strikes his mother (Donna Sherman), and his grandfather (Marc Steiner), who leches after a 13-year-old girl (Robin J. Hogle).

Only the audience gets to know Benno, who sits atop a pile of empty food wrappers, boxes and bottles and narrates the events that have driven him to seal himself in a rented room where he plans to consume not only mass quantities of food but also to commit self-cannibalism. Mr. Chetelat delivers Benno's tale with surprising gentleness, making the gruesome conclusion seem all the more horrid.

"Out at Sea," a contemporary Polish political satire, is more cartoon-like and less gripping. Three starving, shipwrecked men share a raft. Their makeup, demeanor and evening dress are in deliberate contrast to their bleak situation. Both Mr. Chetelat and Norm Synder resemble Moe of "The Three Stooges"; and Bob Tull looks a little like Stan Laurel.

As their hunger builds, the castaways attempt to devise a political system to determine which one shall be eaten. Of course, all of the systems are corrupt.

Somehow, the production never achieves the eerie edge that can come from portraying inhumane acts in a bright, cheery fashion. Perhaps what's missing is a hint of Benno Blimpie's desperation.

Nonetheless, seen together, these two unsettling plays offer an intriguing comment on the so-called advanced state of civilization. When you see the way the innocent are treated, you begin to wonder who the real savages are.

And, oh yes, make sure you eat first.

"The Transfiguration of Benno Blimpie" and "Out at Sea" continue at St. John's Church, St. Paul and 27th streets, tomorrow through Saturday; call 254-0470.

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