Bedlam's The Turducken serves up satisfying dinner theater

When you're through with your speech, could you pass the salt? Jon Cole (left) and Maren Ward
Brad Dahlgaard

The idea of Bedlam staging seasonal dinner theater seems mildly preposterous, mitigated only by the assurance that the product onstage will be caustic, brutally funny, and thoroughly scrubbed of saccharine sincerity. But it ain't dinner theater without the dinner, and those who remember the company's hole-in-the-wall former digs might wonder how even a satirical meal would go down with the knees of the person behind you lodged in your middle spine.

But Bedlam continues to reinvent itself. The company is now 15 years old and seemingly settled into a two-story West Bank headquarters that's spacious and welcoming. The Turducken does indeed come with dinner, and judging from the reaction of the opening-night crowd, a credibly good one. (You can also just see the show, as I did, food criticism not being in my purview.)

The question is whether the grown-up ambience is going to affect the theatrical action, and the answer is: not really. Which can be a mixed bag, depending on your point of view. If Bedlam has a signature style, it's one of dark humor, immediacy over polish, and continuously fresh ideas. When it works, the results are inordinately fun; at other times, the charms of a ramshackle thing begin to evaporate.

Turducken's playwright is Josef Evans, who wrote the frantic and often hilarious Love in a Time of Rinderpest, which Bedlam staged at the 2006 Fringe. His bleakly comic, raggedly agitated sensibility here finds another solid home. The proceedings open with the arrival of Grandpa Christmas (Jason Vogen), who eventually engages in full-contact wrestling with a stage manager who calls herself Holiday Steve (Mandee). Next, we're treated to a room full of singers belting out a tune of such vacuous glee and self-satisfaction that any specter of earnestness vanishes.

From here we tumble into a play-within-a-play, in which Evans sends up Chekhov's The Seagull with a zeal that speaks of obsession. Instead of a country estate, we're in a Minnesota suburb no one can seem to pronounce. The thwarted writer here is Constantius (Jon Cole), who pens impenetrable art plays for his sweetheart Nini (Rachel Petrie) that are somehow to be staged at a Renaissance fair by Muckle John (Maren Ward), who has given up his job at a potato-sack factory to chase his profoundly ridiculous dreams.

It's difficult to pin down why this stuff works, but it does for long stretches, and the dead zones are soon swept away by yet another quick transition, short song, or recurring visit from an increasingly besotted Grandpa Christmas. A high point is Constantius's mother, Wakadinga, a maternal scorpion who lives to deride her son's writing, performed with slinky glamour by Don Mabley-Allen in drag.

Defiant to the end, Turducken goes for the bitter laughs, including a tune linking the holidays with immoderate alcohol consumption. Then matters end with the sound of a pistol being fired. Happy fucking holidays, in other words. Praise the lord and pass the ammunition.

THIS YEAR'S VERSION of the Brave New Workshop's holiday show is one of the few recent stage productions that disappointed me only when it ended. Because I wanted more. More unhygienic acts in gas-station bathrooms, more hats made of tampons, more store-clerk exhortations to open intimate bodily orifices to insert massive bargains.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the show's title, there's no mention of the global financial crisis. Or Dubya, or his war. Which goes down just fine for the moment. It's been a long decade, and it feels fine to sit back and watch two macho reindeer spar because they can't admit their burning attraction for one another. Advice to the boys: It's the holidays, don't fight it. Let your love light shine.

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