KPBS AIRDATE: August 24, 1994
1988 must have been a lean theater year in Chicago. That was when Wendy MacLeod’s “Apocalyptic Butterflies” was hailed by the Chicago Tribune as one of the ten best productions of the season. You know, they get squirrelly in those cold climates…
Maybe in the waning days of winter, around holiday-time, when you’re sick of carols and candy-coated corn onstage, you might be ready for a serio-comic drama about a couple, their unnamed 7 week-old baby, their parents, an extramarital affair and a strange and unwanted Christmas present of totem poles. Maybe. But in the dying days of summer… I don’t know. Everything about this production seemed… unseasonable.
North Coast Repertory Theatre has taken some chances in the past, with gay or political plays, nude scenes and some potentially controversial choices. But they do love the light stuff, too. And sometimes, they excel with it. But this is a fluff-piece on a disturbing theme, that here, under the direction of Vinny Ferelli, is handled all wrong. Screechy at times, preachy at others, too fatuous or erroneous or unvaried in tone. He isn’t helped by the play, which is too serious to be quirky and gets too silly to be taken seriously.
At the center is Hank Tater (are we to take it straight that his doddering father’s name is, quite inappropriately, Dick Tater?) Anyway, Hank and Muriel had a baby. But Hank won’t hold it, or touch it or help come up with a name for it. Muriel is losing patience. She’s also losing Hank, who takes comfort in Trudi, who used to be known as Snaggle-tooth, until she reached puberty. Then no one seemed to look at her teeth.
Anyway, Hank’s wise old mom gives sage advice, while his father gives weird Christmas presents, like four thousand dollars worth of totem poles. Later, he pastes the multitudinous butterflies of the title all over his trailer. As for the apocalypse… Well, it was pretty lame, and didn’t work for me. Maybe you’re more of a believer.
As Hank, Mark Taylor isn’t certain who he is. He’s angry, that’s for sure. He plays that emotion excessively, but doesn’t do well with the one or two others he tries. We don’t buy any tenderness from him, or any sexuality –with mistress or wife — though he’s very attractive. And he sometimes sounds redneck/blue collar New York, while at other times, he sounds fairly civil and educated, and oddly, uses words like ‘irate’ and ‘primordial.’ From the outset, he’s too frenetic to Tracey McNeil’s too-torpid Muriel. As the parents, Pat DiMeo and Jack Becker are much better cast and balanced. Becker is, in fact, the highlight of the piece, with his delightfully dotty ingenuousness.
As the well-endowed Trudi, Annette Murphy is inconsistent, but at her best, she’s believable as old Snaggle-Tooth AKA Tits, who’s neurotic about life but casual about sex, especially with married men. All these parts don’t add up to a satisfying whole. And holes there are a-plenty: in the plot, exposition and overall conception.
Even Marty Burnett’s set design isn’t up to his usual level, though the motel-room bed is nicely done, and on a hot summer night, the snow looks pretty inviting. What this play needs is to take its own advice: to create “a thing greater than the thing itself.” The production’s problem, just like Hank’s, according to his father: it is “not transcendent.”
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1994 Patté Productions Inc.