Munching Across the Great Divide
Two years ago, an editor complained to me that his daughter was using the word random too much. It's not just her, I told him. Random has lately invaded the adolescent lexicon with nearly the force mustered by cool in the 1950s. In the past decade, random has proliferated almost into slangification, attaching itself to people, occurrences, outbursts, whatever. "That's so random!" "She's so random!" Etc.
If anybody deserves credit — or blame — it's probably Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of South Park. Their particular brand of humor consists of piling non sequitur upon non sequitur until there's no room left for any non-non sequiturs. "Random" is their whole aesthetic, and thanks to them, a whole generation's concept of humor may be thusly described. Its insistence upon its own nonsensicality is total and awesome. Sometimes, as in a recent South Park episode involving Somali pirates, the inanities can pile so high that, from atop them, you may think you're glimpsing the world with special clarity. Pirates are desperate people with starving families, the episode taught us, and they deserve our pity. But when the pirates were bloodily gunned down as part of a punch line, we laughed, hard — starving families be damned. Indeed, the starving families made us laugh harder: Much of the joke's firepower was derived from its creators' shocking lack of fidelity to their own creations.
I explain this because Cannibal! The Musical, currently being produced by the Promethean Theatre, was one of Trey Parker's student projects in the early '90s (check out clips of the movie version on YouTube), and if you don't arrive at the theater with an understanding of this kind of humor, you might not laugh. Last Saturday, the first 30 minutes of Cannibal! were deflated by an almost stillborn audience. They couldn't get into the show because they had no idea how to contextualize it — I imagine they felt like opera devotees arriving at La Scala to find that Lucia has been replaced by the Sex Pistols.
Cannibal! is about Alfred Packer, the "only American ever convicted of cannibalism," who munched his way through the party of prospectors he was leading from Provo, Utah, to the gold-rich countryside around Breckenridge, Colorado. (The distance between the cities is about 300 miles: In the play, Packer rightly insists the trip should take about three weeks.) The party left in November 1873 and ran out of food, hope, and luck a couple of months later in the middle of the Rockies. When Packer came wandering out of the wilderness in April 1874, people were suspicious. They soon found the half-eaten bodies of his compatriots in the mountains, and then...
Well, what happened next isn't all that important, because Cannibal! diverges from the history so completely that it might as well be fiction. The play begins at Packer's trial, where he's given a bum's rush by the prosecution and pursued by a hot young reporter from the Denver Post named Polly Pry (Anne Chamberlain). She corners him that night in the jail and cajoles him into telling his story by asking about his beloved horse, Liane. As Packer (Matthew William Chizever) begins to speak, we do some time-traveling back to the beginning of his ill-fated expedition.
If none of this sounds very funny, that's because it isn't. The play's comedy has nothing to do with the story and everything to do with — get ready for it — random elements that have been thrust upon it. Example: Liane, the horse (Katherine Amadeo), does double-duty as both trusty steed and sex symbol. She's the play's sole object of erotic desire, lusted over by both Packer and the leader of a band of filthy trappers he meets in the wild (Andy Quiroga). Packer's elevated love for his ride is explicated in a moving ballad called "When I Was on Top of You."
Another example comes when, starved and frostbitten, the prospectors are momentarily torn from their stupor by one of their number, Swan (Phillip de la Cal), attempting to cheer them with a ditty entitled "Let's Build a Snowman." Sample lyric: "It could have a happy face, a happy smile, a happy point of view! If you build me a snowman, then I'll build one for you! So let's build a snowman! We could make it our best friend! We could name it Bob, or we could name it — Beowolf!" Swan, it goes without saying, is one of the first prospectors to be eaten.
If this sounds like your bag — congratulations! You grok the gestalt, and you will have a fantastic time watching Packer deal with gay Indians who speak pig Latin (probably a pun on Packer's real-life Indian benefactor, who had a very pig-Latinate-sounding name: "Chief Ouray"), a pus-squirting Cyclops (probably a pun on I-don't-know-what), and what seems like a dozen gallons of blood splashed willy-nilly all over the stage. If this doesn't sound like your bag, stay away. No kidding. This ain't Oklahoma!
As a 26-year-old male with a hard-on for death and destruction, I find Cannibal! to be very much my bag. So I can sit back, hip and unscandalized, and groove on the subtlety of Daniel Geldmann's set, which incorporates a delightful gimmick for allowing credible decapitations. And I can appreciate the subtle artistry of actors Chizever, de la Cal, Jeffrey Bower, James Carrey, Sean Muldoon, and Patrick Jesse Watkins as they find new ways of bringing humanity to the act of going mad and eating your friends. I can marvel at the level of thought and dedication brought to the production by Noah Levine and David Meulmans, who are not merely gay Indians but very particular and gorgeously articulated gay Indians whom we are helpless not to love as they go swishing across the Great Divide. And I can be moved by the intensity of Quiroga's self-assertion when he raps: "My mind's magnificent/My body's no different/'Cuz I am a trapping man."
Yes, you are, sir. Yes, you are. Never change.
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