Slam poetry gets the Single Carrot treatment in this entertaining production
If you got dragged to a slam-poetry event in the 1990s, the degree of verisimilitude that Single Carrot Theatre achieves for its latest original comedy Slampooned borders on the dramatic reenactment. Scenic/lighting designer Joey Bromfield has turned the theater company's Load of Fun Studios home into a compact, brick-walled club with a patch of round tables in the front, recalling any of the small coffee shops or bars or independent bookstores where slams were held. The format for the play's fictional slam--which takes place at the 1991 Second Annual National Poetry Slam in Chicago--follows the 3-minute-time-limit, audience-members-as-judges format now fairly uniform throughout the slam community. The performers themselves are spot on, too: incorrigibly earnest, uniformly using unnatural speaking volumes and quickening cadences when delivering their words, the poems themselves excessively personal. Even the slam's emcee is a quirky white guy straight out of the '90s stereotype vault, complete with an idiotic name--Pop Cork Jones (enthusiastically played by Brendan Ragan)--and clad in jeans, a white T-shirt, an age-inappropriate fedora, and a black and white checkerboard vest. It's the sort of look and personality that men now wince at for believing that it could ever get them laid.
And if Single Carrot devoted this production purely to skewering such ripe material, Slampooned would be little more than an amusingly forgettable farce. Slam in 1991 was, after all, still an emerging form--before movies such as Paul Devlin's 1998 SlamNation gave the competition an ESPN-style makeover and exposed performers such as Craig muMs Grant, Jessica Care Moore, Beau Sia, Danny Solis, and Saul Williams to a broader audience, before Russell Simmons' Def Poetry started piping spoken word into living rooms in 2002. Slam and its practitioners in 1991 were young and sincere--fish-in-barrel easy targets for barbed lampooning.
Satire is funniest when it's accurately merciless, but ridicule from the heart can be more disarming--which is more in line with what Single Carrot pulls off here. While the majority of the play's action takes place during the aforementioned slam competition--which conveniently provides the play's narrative arc, moving from opening rounds to final--its depth comes from cutaway scenes to a scrappy young team from Mackinaw City, Mich., preparing for and traveling to Chicago for the event. Ordinary nice guy Shane Fluidge (Ragan again) is the team captain, and he makes the potentially dubious deal with older Vietnam War veteran Larry (Nathan A. Cooper, whose almost unhinged performance steals every scene he's in) that he can join the team if he agrees to drive them down to Chicago in his van. And so Shane, Lydia (Genevieve de Mahy), and poets played by the nimble Jessica Garrett and Elliott Rauh pile into Larry's radio-less van for the long drive to the competition, setting up a country vs. city showdown with the absurdly streetwise Chicago team. Apparently, at slam events, impromptu challenges and competition ties are settled by extemporaneous haiku battles-qua-death matches, which are profanely ludicrous.
The rest of the poems, though--written by the Single Carrot ensemble--are uncomfortably on point. Relationships and sex figure prominently in subject matter--as they do in the early careers of singer/songwriters and many first-time novelists--with the poems often moving from embarrassingly awful to gracelessly vulnerable in the same breath. De Mahy's Lydia, especially, straddles a thin line between cartoon and nightmare. Lydia comes across as a hopeless romantic: Almost on sight, she confesses a slight crush on a cute guy from South Carolina in the competition, and she's so buoyantly dreamy overall that you begin to wonder if she feels that she expresses her unique individuality in her cutoff overalls and that cheeky beret atop her head. Her first poem even starts off as a mortifyingly lame story of losing her virginity; halfway through, though, it becomes a shattering reminiscence of young men's cruelty, which she continues to deliver in her innocent, sing-song voice. At that moment you don't know whether to laugh or cringe, and that complex, mannered awkwardness is what Slampooned achieves in its finest moments. It's an odd intensity the play can't sustain throughout, and director Aldo Pantoja nicely balances these moments of protean tension with more pedestrian comedic one-liners, setups, and guffaws. The play is better when it aims for the uneasy, but an entire night of such ill at ease situations wouldn't feel as lighthearted as Slampooned does at its competitive conclusion.
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