Milkmilklemonade runs at the New Theatre from February 5-March 2. By Josh Conkel, directed by Melita Rowston.
Milkmilklemonade is at once fantastical and realistic, funny and moving. It is a show with its own language, one that is quite difficult to acclimate to at first. It is a theatrical language, a melodramatic language, a performative language, one which exposes the problem at the heart of the play: how to be yourself when people are telling you that you should be someone else.
Our hero is Emory (Mark Dessaix), a fifth grade boy who lives on a chicken farm with his dying stuck-in-her-ways grandmother (Pete Nettrell). Emory likes dolls and singing and dancing, dreaming of entering a major pageant-style competition with his Barbie Starlene (Leah Donovan, who also plays several other roles) and his best friend, talking chicken Linda (Sarah Easterman). His grandmother, on the other hand, thinks he should do more stereotypically male things. The other key figure in Emory's life is Elliot (Kieran Foster), sometimes a bully, sometimes a friend, a boy who, despite his aggressive insistence on his own masculinity, loves playing house with Emory and fantasises about going to the prom.
In her groundbreaking work Gender Trouble, Judith Butler talks about the problems of gender and performativity. I won't quote her, because her prose is some of the most dense and impenetrable I have ever encountered, but essentially, she argues that gender is not innate but is performed, forcing people into rigid roles that might not necessarily suit them. We see a classic case of this in milkmilklemonade. Unable to adequately perform the masculine role that his grandmother wants him to, Emory escapes into a fantasy world where he can perform the way he wants to. Sometimes he is co-opted into Elliot's dreamworld, queering the domestic fantasy, exposing more problems with gender performance. According to his grandmother, it is his duty to become a stereotypical man. This is horrifying to him, particularly when read alongside the inexorable destiny of the chickens on his farm, which is to die horribly in a monstrous machine. Emory must find a way to perform like he wants to – to create his own theatrical language for interpreting the world –or his identity, his self, will perish.
Milkmilklemonade could have been a big mess. There's always a danger of taking it too far with this kind of wacky, surrealist humour, of letting the absurdity take over the show like an avalanche. While I suspect the show might still be a bit much for some audience members, Melita Rowston has showed remarkable restraint in her deft direction of this piece. By keeping it carefully controlled, Rowston has allowed the wackiness of it to be funny and absorbing without losing sight of the real melancholy at its heart.
While I was a little apprehensive in the early stages, I ended up really enjoying milkmilklemonade(though I was never quite clear on where the title came from). It's at once completely absurd and a thoughtful commentary on the problems of performing identity. It features some great performances and some really clever direction. Definitely the best play I've seen starring a giant chicken!