Milk Milk Lemonade – Josh Conkel and the complex adult world of children. (theatre review)
Gender is one of the roles that we play.
At the very start of MilkMilkLemonade, the lady in a leotard (Leah Donovan) asks the audience if our bodies rule our minds or if our minds rule our bodies? This sets up the framework for the play as each of the characters have to struggle with their bodies in different ways. All of this complexity is housed in an extremely funny, absurd dreamscape of a film where it is very difficult to know if events are really taking place or not. This is a play where chickens speak (many different languages) Barbies dance and sing, and grandmothers pretend they are dying just to scare their grandchildren. And despite the dark subtext, it really is a very funny piece of theater.
In a lovely interview with Josh Conkel on Adam Szymkowicz blog, Josh tells the incredible story of finally, after many years, getting up the courage to ask his mother about an incident that occurred in his youth. His Grandmother had given him a home-made perm and he thought he would show it off. When a bigger kid wanted to make fun of him. he took a bottle and smashed it over the child’s head. The family had to move soon after, and Josh suspected the child had died. He finally got up the courage to ask his mother about it, and she replied that none of it happened, and they certainly never permed his hair.
This interesting story goes a rather long way to explaining the complexity of a play like MilkMilkLeomonade. It’s a story about Emory, a gay child who lives on a chicken farm with his grandmother. Its a nightmarish environment. the chickens are slaughtered (of course) Emory is “encouraged” by his grandmother not to be so “soft” and to be more of a “man” and the boys beat him up at school. In fact one of the boys who beats him also comes over and plays games with him that result in sexual coercion that at times looks like rape. Emory is a beautiful young boy who wants to play with his Barbie, spend time with his favorite chicken that he manages to rescue from the slaughter machine regularly enough that it has grown fat, and create dances with ribbons (to Nina Simone) that might win him first place on ‘Reach for the stars’. he wants to leave the farm, because as he says to his grandmother, “I’m different, and I’m dying.”
It’s a play about how difficult it is to be a gay child and it is also a play about the stories gay children have to live with as real and invent to disguise the real. It is not a play for children as it is a very adult world these kids have to adapt to very fast. Emory is forced to understand complex issues like why his friend needs to hit him and then have sex with him, and why his grandmother wants to kill his pet chicken in order to toughen him up. Not all children have to bear the burden of understanding these issues, and no child has the brain capacity necessary for it. Josh Conkel wants us to see that for these kids, often their extremely painful lives are remembered in complicated and strange ways.
Having said all of that, Josh Conkel likes fun, absurd theater, and in the interview he is quick to back away from the “deep” conversation. He likes theater that entertains and there is no question that with MilkMilkLemoanade he has made a lovely piece of entertainment. I’ve said above that it is a very funny play, but more than that, it’s a fun experience with music, dancing and a series of absurd and crazy scenarios.
Of course, to pull off a play with such dark subject matter, in such a light, playful and clever way takes a wonderful director and a truly great cast. The group putting MilkMilkLemoade on at the New theater in Newtown does a stellar job that I can’t imagine being done better. Mark Dessaix is a lovely, gentle soft-spoken Emory, while his nemesis / friend Elliot is equally as well played by Kieran Foster. Both men tackle the dark subject matter with the joyful lightness of children, and never for a moment do we imagine that these grown men are not young boys. Sarah Essterman plays Linda, Emory’s pet chicken and Leah Donovan plays Lady in a Leotard. Interestingly, both the women’s roles are disembodied characters, at times human and mostly not human. The absurd and surreal (dadist?) is reserved for the female bodies, neither being human and yet both being more than human. Both female actors do a very brilliant job with very challenging roles that involve a great deal of meta theater. Pette Nettell does a wonderful job of the grandmother in drag an older women who has been on death’s door for years, who enjoys letting the audience see up her skirt. All of this is tied together with the wonderful direction of Melita Rowston who leads a fine creative team in a production that fulfills the intense ambition of an award wining script.