Posted March 9, 2012 at 2:54 pm
by Martin Denton, NYTheatre.com
The Talking Band’s Hot Lunch Apostles did for me what art is supposed to do: it shook me up, made me question fundamental assumptions, and launched a dialogue (sometimes internal, sometimes with others) about some core issues of humanity. This is jolting rather than comforting theater, and in a few different ways it’s sometimes hard to watch. It’s not for everybody, but I recommend it strongly for those in search of rich, insightful, experiential theater. It requires an open mind and an open heart.
The show is about a bedraggled carnival trouping through the American heartland, and indeed our first encounter with it, before we’re in our seats, is on the midway, where we can view some of the sideshow exhibits, buy hot pretzels and soft drinks, and try to win a prize or two. (One of the “acts” is a pair of musicians, one of whom is portrayed by Loudon Wainwright, who performs one of his compositions.)
Lulled into a sense of good feeling, we enter the theater proper and our journey with these “Hot Lunch Apostles” begins. The focus shifts gradually from onstage to backstage as we meet the carnival’s employees and come to know them; we literally stop being spectators and turn into voyeur/eavesdroppers as playwright Sidney Goldfarb and director Paul Zimet switch our POV from carny audience to flies on the wall behind the scenes.
Wainwright plays Barney, the proprietor of this small ragtag company; the other members are Loop (Ellen Maddow), an addled woman who is a performer and Barney’s assistant; Phoebe (Tina Shepard), a burlesque performer; Rod (Jack Wetherall), Phoebe’s lover and also a burlesque performer; Edge (Will Badgett), whose stock in trade is eating garbage on stage; and Cyclone (Edward RosenBerg III), the house musician. Early in the show a young woman named Slide (nicHi douglas) also joins the troupe as a stripper.
Goldfarb conjures here a time and place similar to yet distant from our own. The economy is rotten and people have become desperate. The play’s title refers to a specific kind of performance that reflects this circumstance rather starkly; when I discovered what it meant I found myself truly jolted, in a way that theatre seldom is able to do in this era of seen-it-all excess. Zimet and his cast are unsparing in their presentation of the carnival’s baseness, and the show features several burlesque numbers with full nudity that bring to question the very nature and purpose of such public exhibition.
But the main thread of the show has to do with Barney’s conversion, as it were: for a variety of reasons, some of them surely economic, he’s rebuilding the carnival show as a religious pageant. “Fuck those pussy pits,” Barney tells Loop when she questions the new programming. “We made more doin’ gospel last week in Liplock than hot lunch gets us in a month.” Many of the scenes in Hot Lunch Apostles are of the company rehearsing these latter-day Mystery plays, and they tell the story of Christ chronologically from the manger to the resurrection. Their message proves to be as essential as it ever was: Edge asks, “If Christ came back right now, do you know who he’d hang out with?”
I wonder how baldly transgressive this play felt in the early ’80s, when it was originally performed by The Talking Band at La MaMa. In 2012 it feels scarily prophetic in places; the hypocrisies of religious snake-oil salesmen like Barney seem somehow more embedded in our culture than they ever were. In any event, Goldfarb’s script and Zimet’s production leave us with much to ponder after Hot Lunch Apostles’ curtain comes down.
The show is, not at all unsurprisingly, spectacularly well done. Music by Maddow, RosenBerg, Harry Mann, and Sybile Hayn is evocative and beautifully performed by the company. The design—a spare set by Nic Ularu; tacky costumes by Kiki Smith; moody lighting by Lenore Doxsee—provides the stark, sad ambience the show demands. And the acting, by a troupe mostly of Talking Band all-stars, is superb.
The best theater isn’t the kind that lets you walk out happy and satisfied; it’s the kind where you leave a little bit different than when you came in. That was my experience at Hot Lunch Apostles. We are fortunate to have The Talking Band still making true and authentic art here at La MaMa three decades after they first performed this remarkable show.