BOTTOM LINE: The season of spooks and goblins gets a jolt from this sometimes surreal and sometimes hilarious look at the creepiness of contemporary existence.
Clay McLeod Chapman’s annual Pumpkin Pie Show has run for more than a decade and each year‘s creation puts a new spin on the genre of ghost stories, tall tales, and human-interest horror. In five short vignettes, three actors touch upon themes as disparate as synthetic hair extensions, puberty, boll weevils, and maternal affection for one’s spawn. It’s often funny but includes more than a few repellent twists. What’s more, since the show does not distract viewers with costumes, sets, or special effects, it forces attention to rest on the actors and musician (the talented Shayfer James), whose piano compositions and bluesy vocals punctuate each scene.
This year’s production opens with a soliloquy called "Unmask the Phantom," delivered by Chapman. In it, he harkens back to 1988, when, as an 11-year-old, he began experiencing what he calls “a precocious puberty...a massive tectonic shift in the composition of my body.” As he, his sister, mom, and mom’s best friend watched the Broadway production of The Phantom of the Opera, the sight and sound of soprano Sarah Brightman sent the lad into a previously unexplored state of erotic ecstasy. It’s a coming (literally) of age moment writ large and his poignant retelling is played with both comic effect and tender reflection. Indeed, Chapman’s wit and self-deprecation are resonant as he recalls the personal embarrassment and confusion of his wily adolescence.
Chapman is followed by the excellent Hanna Cheek whose sketch, "Ghost Story One: Daycare," tells the story of Aunty Paulina, a woman who cares for — or more accurately takes state payments for — four developmentally disabled adults. “I was born into babysitting,” she begins, “as the oldest of eight kids.” Her deep southern drawl, recitation of Bible verses, and addiction to Vicks VapoRub make her a bit of a cliché. Nonetheless, her nuanced performance — she is both victimizer and victim — makes this one of the show’s standout performances. Likewise, her final piece, "Ghost Story Four: Mama Bird," asks the always pertinent question of what it means to love one’s child unconditionally, especially if said child is ghoulishly “otherworldly.”
Like Cheek, Ana Asensio is terrific in "Ghost Story Two: Split Ends." In it, she rants and raves — in Spanglish and English — about the use of synthetic hair extensions, something that she, an in-demand stylist, refuses to utilize. Her character is ambitious, and when she meets Reggie, a man who works for the local coroner, she sees the encounter as a potential business opportunity. After all, what happens to the hair of those whose bodies remain unclaimed? Might she snip some strands from the dead and later weave them onto the heads of her clients? A foray to the morgue follows. Still, while Asensio is fully stoked about acquiring the tresses she craves, she can’t help but worry that the locks will haunt those who wear them.
Chapman’s "Ghost Story Three: B-Side," the next scene, addresses the appropriation of Southern black rhythm-and-blues by white collectors and scholars. Although I found it the least compelling of the works presented — perhaps because the message is conveyed by a ghostly apparition — it nonetheless raises important political questions about culture and who gets to assign meaning to the arts.
There’s much to mine here. In fact, each of the five well-written narratives that comprise The Pumpkin Pie Show: BOOGEDY BOO could easily be expanded into an understated — yet disturbing — one person show. But they also work as short pieces. They’re provocative, entertaining, and beautifully staged. By merging the skeevy with enough social realism to make them unsettling, BOOGEDY BOO is a worthwhile night of seasonal amusement.
(The Pumpkin Pie Show: BOOGEDY BOO plays at UNDER St. Marks, 94 St. Marks Place, through October 26, 2013. Performances are Thursdays through Sundays at 8PM. General admission tickets are $18; student/senior price, $15. They can be ordered by going to www.horseTRADE.info or calling SmartTix at 212.868.4444.)