LA MAMA REVIVES TALKING BAND’S FANTASTICAL 1983 PLAY
BY HENRY EDWARDS
The Talking Band’s “Hot Lunch Apostles,” first seen at La MaMa in 1983, is the latest entry in the fabled Off-Off-Broadway theater’s 50th anniversary “homecomings” season. The play, written by poet and playwright Sidney Goldfarb and directed by Talking Band honcho Paul Zimet, holds court at the Ellen Stewart Theatre through March 18.
Originally set several decades into the future (which means it takes place now), “Hot Lunch Apostles” envisioned a nightmare America plagued dominated by rampant religious fundamentalism and drastic unemployment. Think of the nation as one, big red-state version of “Road Warrior” with 50 million unemployed and looking for work and the next meal (or what passes for it), and you get the picture.
With more than a touch of irony, the revival sets the show in the present, making the not-so-subtle point that yesterday's hideous fantasy has become today's even more hideous reality
The play conjures a pathetic, down-at-the-heels burlesque troupe that performs at rural fairs. Their (incredibly creepy) bill of fare includes creepy geek acts (a man eats garbage; a female drug addict covered with sores throws up), burlesque numbers and participatory sex acts.
"They perform the most foul acts imaginable. Hot lunch is where the strippers are eaten on the runway by the audience,” playwright Goldfarb told an interviewer. “This stuff is true: the actors actually did a lot of research."
In an attempt to beef up their faltering business, the carnies decide on a new obsenity to add to their nauseating bag of tricks: the routines: the enactment of scenes from the New Testament.
Naturally, the idea does not sit well every actor. “Playing Jesus is like playing with smack!” one character whines.
Auditions for the role of Jesus require candidates to climb onto a makeshift cross and do their best to look beatific, and then, finally, the rudiments of a performance of the Passion Play begin to take shape.
"When you see them attempt to perform the gospels, you're seeing them do their regular acts at the same time, in a juxtaposition between the sacred and the profane that kind of makes them equivalent to each other,” says Goldfarb.
For example, the sacred and profane theoretically coalesce when St. Teresa's strip is staged to show "how a young girl comes when she’s wounded by God himself!”
Ultimately troupe members respond to the spirituality inherent in the "gospel shit," although one or two continue to prefer serving “hot lunch.”
"Hot Lunch Apostles" features features musician Loudon Wainwright as the barker and head man of the brigade, longtime Talking Band members Jack Wetherall (best known for his role on "Queer as Folk and a terrific Jesus in this piece), and Will Badgett, Talking Band founding members Ellen Maddow and Tina Shepard, along with nicHI Douglas (the H is her name is capitalized for no reason at all) and Ed RosenBerg III, who is a great horns player and happens to have incredibly long hair.
Acclaimed feminist artist Kiki Smith designed the costumes.
When "Hot Lunch Apostles" was first performed, Ronald Reagan had been in office for almost three years, and there was liberal opposition to his economic and civil rights policies and increased military spending. At the same time, The New York Times reported the poverty rate had risen to 15 percent, the highest level since the mid-1960's.
Thus the play may have been originally created as a vitrolic smack on the face for those who considered Reagan's so called "morning again in America" one of the great transformative events of their lifetimes and the lifetime of the country.
Perhaps. Or perhaps not. When asked if the Talking Band created "political" plays, director Zimet had this to say to an interviewer:“All theater is political. It is political either by choice or by default. If the theater you create reaffirms what is most shallow in our culture, then its absences of criticism, or lack of imagining alternatives, makes it unconsciously political.”
In general, LaMaMa’s “homecomings” shows serve mainly as cultural artifacts, providing an opportunity to experience or re-experience downtown theatrical events of the past. Not unexpectedly, “Hot Lunch Apostles” and its ilk are bound to show their age since they essentially are rooted in the temperament of another time.
Bursting to the seams with nudity, profanity, rudeness and sacreligious behavior, “Hot Lunch Apostles” appears designed to offend. In revival, it is alternately amusing and tedious, eventually weaing itself out long before its over. And yet it has a haunting feel about it, most probably serving as a reminder that once upon a time, wonder of wonders, a group of artists existed who wanted to make art their way and didn’t give a damn about the marketplace.
That was - and is - the joy of LaMaMa.