With imaginative but rudimentary costumes and minimal sets and props, the ensemble cast of The Sweet, Burning Yonder, directed by Michael Burnham, brought John Ray’s often poetic, streaming language to vivid life in its opening performance. This is sometimes biting, but mostly broadly humorous, satire, which will tickle your funny bone without heaping too much guilt on your head. The 1317 Main venue offers an airy, modestly sized room with a high ceiling, seating about 50. The opening night house was full and friendly. Solid, enthusiastic applause brought the cast back for a second bow.
The plot, in a series of wacky interlocking skits, revolves around a pair of fairly clueless but comically astute-to-profit, white-coated surveyors. They’ve been contracted by the EPA to gather and test the Mississippi River’s water for toxins after the Katrina disaster. The two inadvertently end up geographically replicating Lewis and Clark’s historic exploration, complete with a modern-day Sacagawea.
But in this case, the guiding Indian maiden takes on the guise of Mam’zelle, a canny and soulful New Orleans native (played by an excellent Omope Carter Daboiku) who contracts with the surveyors to employ her preternaturally sensitive palate, which can amazingly distinguish precisely the poisonous composition the surveyors have been hired to chart. She agrees to perform this service for an ongoing supply of cans and jars of authentic Farmer Dave’s Chili-Mac. Is it surprising when she eventually meets Farmer Dave and discovers that her cherished meal of choice is just junk food, “something we serve poor people?” Or, in a larger sense, that the natural world has been despoiled? Not really.
I read the audience’s reassuringly frequent laughs as knowing acknowledgements of what was portrayed as the environmentally disastrous results of misguided but pervasive private and public sentiment. I guess that falls in the category of black comedy. Do be warned: there are a lot of characters to keep track of in this fast-moving play (and to compound things further, characters jump back and forth between former times and the present). You’ll encounter spirits, cows, Indians, Mexicans, fiddlers, explorers, coochie dancers and more. And my favorite, a group of hilarious dolphins with blue glitter visors and sonar voicings.
In addition to Daboiku, the cast (to be especially commended for their legible reading of an enjoyably detailed script) included Sarah Mann Wolf, Jared Taylor Wilson, Wendy Braun, Daniel Britt, Sarah Fischer, Donald Volpenhein and Paul Morris. The playwright effectively appears in a brief walk-on role during the concluding moments.