Thursday, September 8, 2011

Shakespeare Meets A Nightmare Before Christmas

Last month, I happened to watch Salamander Stew, a play by Michael Fixel performed as part of the New York Fringe Theatre Festival. A cross between Shakespeare and The Nightmare Before Christmas, Salamander Stew is a verse Romeo-and-Juliet musical with a twist. Powered by love and a mighty joint, it takes you into a phantasmagorical world of slithering creatures, hungry spirits, and deceptive rather than deciduous trees. Everything we always read about the deep dark woods but were afraid to experience unfolds before our eyes in its native wickedness. If you are a Harry Potter fan, a Tolkien geek, or if Beetle Juice is one of your favorite movies, you will crave Salamander Stew.

‘Tis the premise – classically simple: Young, naïve, and lovesick Steven stumbles upon beautiful woodlands. It’s hard to tell whether the spell descends on him from the evil powers of the trees or the sinful potency of the grass he smokes, but once he takes a respite in the welcoming shade, the thicket takes him. His inflamed mind takes him on a psychedelic trip: he meets his love, he loses her, he wakes up in the lizards’ lair exhausted and hungry, but all he is offered to eat is a nauseating salamander stew.

A sprig of spinach
A slice of radish
Whiff of ginger
Paw of rabbit
Orange claw
Forest thatch
Lizard’s lungs
Down the hatch 

There aren’t many props on the stage: a leaf-covered layer and a couple of beautifully authentic stumps adorned with fuzzy yarns is all the magic. The treacherous forest as well as the evil inhabitants it harbors, are acted by the energetic cast of seventeen. They spend hours on their make-up, transforming themselves from human into sprawling plants, slithering serpents and ghastly gnomes. On the way to the theater, they practice jungle sounds, chirping like birds and rustling like leaves. Their efforts pay off: the moment we set foot in the door, we feel that instead of a theater, we have wandered into the endless woods.

A lot happens in this one-act musical: dancing, drumming, singing -- all in a quick aggressive pace that never slows down, moves the story forward and keeps our attention. So do the lighting effects, transporting us from the pitch black to the vampirish white to the soft shade of the love scenes. The cast works well together, especially when performing the Red-Eye dance in complete darkness, creating a believable illusion of dozens of hungry red eyes glowing in the infinite wilderness. A charmingly poetic old English script, executed in the best traditions of Stomp, has a lot to offer, but there is only one thing it doesn’t do.

It never explains what Salamander Stew really is.

When it doubt, Google it. According to Urban Dictionary, Salamander Stew is a code name for sex. Maybe it was a coincidence, maybe not. What do you think?

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