Petunia and Chicken from Animal Engine Theatre Company transforms the basement of a synagogue into the vast and harsh plains of Nebraska, two actors into a huge and colorful cast, and another night in the nation’s capital into an oasis of wholesome and delightful theatre.
Like their eponymous main characters working the barren Nebraska soil, husband and wife team Karim Muasher and Carrie Brown face a classic touring theatre challenge: Turning an unflattering venue in a strange land into a rich harvest. With Melinda Jean Ferraraccio’s direction, Brown and Muasher rise to the occasion.
Using only a hat and a shawl, they evoke young lovers, noble farmers, a crooked banker, and an exhausted dog, to name a select few. All in the pursuit of that classic love story: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl again.
Petunia and Chicken is directly inspired by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Willa Cather’s novels, written almost a century ago. Cather is famous for her depiction of frontier life on the Great Plains. Animal Engine Theatre Company, co-artistic directed by Brown and Muasher, puts a thoroughly physical, clowning twist on Cather’s stories.
The show is littered with physical gags as either actor’s body becomes a piece of the scenery for the other’s use or their costume takes on a new meaning. Chicken’s hat can become a cat or a bible or a sign of how egotistical this new character is. Petunia’s shawl can become a circus tent or a ship crossing the Atlantic or the wrappings around a mummy (for real).
Petunia and Chicken
Written by Carrie Brown and Karim Muasher
Details and tickets
With a 77-word technical rider on their website that requests a stage which is flat and a sound system that either has an AUX input or a CD drive (not picky), Petunia & Chicken’s design elements are as minimal as could be. The sole musical cue is actually rather jarring, as Brown and Muasher sing songs throughout the show unaided.
In a sobering reminder of the world outside of the synagogue’s basement, the show features two heart-wrenching moments of drama, both instances of gun violence. In an otherwise zany show, such tragedy is treated respectfully. Ferraraccio slows the action and cares for the audience.
As characters and settings whizz by, many become mere caricatures, but the biggest disappointment is how little time the audience is given to delve into Petunia and Chicken’s romance, instead of just their friendship. They carry all the classic signs of young lovers destined to reunite, but a few more moments of romantic chemistry could make the show more than a fun romp on the frontier between two friends.
At its core, Petunia and Chicken is about love. Not just the boy-meets-girl love story, but also Brown and Muasher’s love of Willa Cather, their love of physical theatre, and whatever insane love that it must take to put up with someone as you tour a show at Fringe festivals and schools for three years. And all of that love comes through, radiant and proud.
Petunia and Chicken. Directed by Melinda Jean Ferraraccio. Created and Performed by Carrie Brown and Karim Muasher. Produced by Animal Engine Theatre Company. Reviewed by Marshall Bradshaw.