Opening Nights: MilkMilk Lemonade

A surreal tale of two Southern boys, one blatant, one latent.

Trying to explain Joshua Conkel's 90- minute fever dream would be like attempting to deconstruct The Cat in the Hat. Don't dig too deep, because you're likely to fall through the bottom. The one-act dramedy begins with a breathlessly inexperienced narrator (Jennifer Pratt) delineating the multiple roles she'll be playing. These include a rapacious spider named Rochelle, an evil twin living in the thigh of the play's antagonist, Elliot (Noah Benezra), and her work translating the clucks of a chicken named Linda (Kate Sumpter) into English. Are you with me so far?

At the center of it all is the irrepressible Emory (Tim Smith-Stewart), a "sensitive" fifth-grader living on a chicken farm with his oxygen tank–toting Nanna (Troy Mink). Early on, she makes him surrender his favorite doll and suggests instead that he play with the white-trash neighbor boy, Elliot—who also happens to be a pyromaniac.

And play they do. After beating up Emory, Elliot confesses he has an evil symbiant living inside him. The two boys then enact a can't-avert-your-eyes pas de deux pastiche of Tennessee Williams, with Emory lolling at the window in a sheer pink housecoat on a sweltering night drawling about the moths in the bug zapper outside, while Elliot does his best Stanley Kowalski in response.

There are also a few song-and-dance sequences in MilkMilk Lemonade (the title comes from a bawdy nursery rhyme), because Emory is convinced his ticket off the chicken farm is an upcoming cattle call for a TV show called Reach for the Stars. Emory's feathered stage partner is Linda, who clucks her way through the numbers and later flaunts her own mad skills as a stand-up comic.

Director Montana von Fliss stages MML like a live-action Peanuts strip, but the stick-figure approach keeps the focus right where it ought to be—on one of the best Seattle ensemble performances in recent years. Both boys, though played by grown men, are captivating; Sumpter invests Linda with tragic grandeur; and Mink portrays Nanna like she's a missing character from the Greater Tuna series. Pratt holds it all together effortlessly while oozing sincerity and neophyte enthusiasm.

Trained at Cornish and today based in Brooklyn, playwright Conkel imbues MML with a point if not an overt meaning. The bullying (and suicides) of gay youth are as current as the daily headlines. But without nailing his beliefs to the door like some latter-day Martin Luther, Conkel has conjured a fantasy in which the events are entirely contrived but the emotions utterly authentic. If you like theater that challenges as well as entertains, this is the ticket of the year for you.

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