Camp, comedy on the loose in Theatre Project's 'Artificial Jungle'

THEATER

November 19, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

It was a dark and stormy night -- both inside and outside the Theatre Project -- when Impossible Industrial Action opened its delectably campy production of Charles Ludlam's "The Artificial Jungle."

Outside, the special effects were provided by Mother Nature. Inside, IIA's hokey thunder and lightning crashed and flashed while the ghost of James Cain met the ghost of Emile Zola, with Ludlam serving as medium.

Ludlam, founder of New York's aptly named Ridiculous Theatrical Company, was a master at mixing the silly and the sublime. In "The Artificial Jungle," his last play before his death in 1987, Ludlam combined the plots of Cain's "Double Indemnity" and "The Postman Always Rings Twice" with Zola's "Therese Raquin" to show that, in this dog-eat-dog world, man is no better than the animals. Or, as one character puts it, "Every living thing lives off some other living thing. That's the law of the jungle."

The Artificial Jungle is the name of a family-run pet shop, the type of cheerful neighborhood establishment that sells piranhas as well as parrots. The proprietor is Chester Nurdiger, and as portrayed by Tony Tsendeas -- who co-directed the production with Paul Wright -- it would be difficult to find a nerdier Nurdiger. Unless, of course, you consider Mother Nurdiger, who is played by Robin J. Hogle as an irrepressibly perky senior citizen, kind of a one-woman sitcom -- Mary Tyler Moore for the 80-and-older set.

But back to mama's boy, Chester. His work clothes include safari shorts worn with knee socks falling down around his ankles, and he speaks as if his dentures were slipping; this mumbled diction is an unfortunate choice on Tsendeas' part since it causes him to swallow some of Ludlam's funnier lines. Nonetheless it's easy to see why Chester's wife, Roxanne -- portrayed by Donna Sherman as the epitome of cheap chic -- falls for the first non-nerdy male to enter the store.

Indeed, Robb Bauer's cool Zachary Slade and Sherman's Roxanne appear to be two of a kind; after all, they both favor tacky leopard-print apparel. But after he and Rox have done away with poor Chester, Zach turns out to be made of considerably weaker stuff. The production's funniest moments belong to Bauer, who hops around in antic hysteria when Zach undergoes a crisis of conscience.

As is suggested by the references to leopard-print clothing and wrinkled socks, IIA is a company that recognizes the importance that small things can play in creating the big picture. Designer David Barber's amply appointed set is the most detailed and realistic I've ever seen at the Theatre Project. Its mechanical props, including a plant that wilts on cue, add to the show's campy fun, as does Scott Rosenfeld's melodramatic lighting and Mark Harp and Ty Ford's music and sound, which rely heavily on ominous organ chords.

In addition, the directors have included some clever comic touches. For example, instead of smothering Chester with a pillow, as the stage directions suggest, Zach does the dirty deed with Chester's own teddy bear. It's this sort of loving attention to detail that makes IIA's approach to Ludlam a charmingly sick success. Think of it as the union of the Impossible and the Ridiculous.

"The Artificial Jungle"

Where: Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St.

When: Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m. (No performances Nov. 24 and 25); through Dec. 12

Tickets: $14

Call: (410) 752-8558

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