The postapocalyptic landscape in Alex Jones’ new play is a tortured terrain whose barren earth meets an arid horizon aflame with orange light. This is a near-future deracinated by global warming and other environmental sorrows, although, as nomadic strangers racked by thirst, sores and sterility, Jones’ sunburned characters bear the brunt even more than the punished land. Now running at the Furious Theatre Company, Canned Peaches in Syrup is no eco-fable, however, but a profane farce about the dumb and the dumber — a kind of Road Warrior meets Hee Haw.
Jones’ story suggests a future with an alarming lack of diversity: People are either messianic vegetarians or practical cannibals, and, when they meet, the gatherers tend to get the short, sharp end of the hunters’ stick. Enter Pa (Robert Pescovitz), Ma (Laura Raynor) and their daughter Julie (Katie Davies), a latter-day Joad family pushing a two-wheeled wagon, whose few possessions include the battered lawn chairs they place on a land now without lawns.
Led by the deeply paranoid and suspicious Pa (to strangers, he’s more likely to extend the muzzle of a battered .30-30 than his hand), the trio spends most of its time migrating from one part of the Midwest to another in search of roots, shoots and leaves — a Year Zero diet that would make even the most hardcore of today’s vegans run for the nearest steak house. The three were once part of one of America’s nomadic vegetarian tribes (“Meat is murder!” is their familiar mantra), but have lately been forced to go it alone to pursue what faint greenery veins the windswept earth in search of precious water.
This family’s biggest natural enemies are cannibals — until, that is, they meet a sightless, self-styled shaman named Blind Bastard (Dana J. Kelly Jr.). He’s an old con man who tells the three that the planet’s woes began when society failed to kill whales fast enough before the mammals’ “radioactive shit” wreaked havoc with the environment. The family members weigh this bit of zoology, not quite sure of its sourcing, but give it tentative credence. Soon young Julie innocently blurts out that there’s forbidden fruit aboard the family pushcart — an ancient can of peaches in syrup.
Old Blind Bastard drools lasciviously — first at the mention, then at the tenuous touch of this aluminum can — before Pa snatches it away. For the holy man, eating a peach is a sensuous fulfillment, like having “a small breast in your mouth.” Blind Bastard quickly betrays the family to four cannibals encamped nearby: Scab (Nick Cernoch), Rog (Shawn Lee), Bill (Eric Pargac) and Heather (Libby West), whose motto is, “Flesh for flesh!” The happy news is that they don’t really like being cannibals — except maybe rage-aholic Heather, whose bilious, sewer-mouthed patois and eagerness to devour her fellow man never permit her, figuratively at least, to put down her fork. Rog, an intense young man sporting a dead eye, reconnoiters the vegetarians’ site only to fall in love with Julie. The rest, as they say, is histrionics.
Is Jones’ play a love story? Hardly, because the romance is played for easy laughs (“He says he wants to fuck me!” starry-eyed Julie reports to her beaming parents), along with constant scatological references. I guess it’s safe to say that Canned Peaches in Syrup is the Furious Theatre Company having fun. This is the first play they’ve done in a long time that has no explicit message and has no unambiguous side to take. Or rather, its message is so explicit that we reflexively ignore it. There’s nothing wrong with this, but the play isn’t even a guilty pleasure to watch and its world-asunder milieu doesn’t reach out to human emotions the way, say, Jose Rivera’s Marisol does. Before long, in fact, viewers might find two hours of people obsessively discussing their excrement and making broth of mold and human scabs repetitive.
“Pink shit don’t sound right,” drawls Pa, in one of the play’s more judgmental remarks. Lines like this, delivered in a Sam Shepard–like deadpan, are funny the first time or two, but after a while we’re ready to move on — but not into the evening’s eventual slide into Grand Guignol, a graphic twist that gives new meaning to the word “potboiler.”
Still, director Dámaso Rodriguez’s production brings together an energetic cast and smart design crew. The evening draws most of its weight from the scenes featuring Pescovitz’s turn as Pa, who is a grumbling oak tree of a man whom the audience, to his credit, can never quite read, and who brings a craggy strength to the comedy, preventing it from lapsing into slapstick. He and the ensemble comport themselves on a simple but emotionally desiccated set by Melissa Teoh that is morosely lit by Dan Jenkins. (Jenkins’ skyscapes taunt us with ecologically compromised heavens.) Sound designer Doug Newell’s original music is an ominous score of guttural guitars, dissonant hammers and flatulent tuba sounds, providing the rumbling soundtrack for an earth fatally out of kilter.
Special mentions should be made of Christy M. Hauptman’s costumes and Christa McCarthy’s hair and makeup, which not only bring us very much into an anachronistic, filthy rag-and-bones world without industry, but also pull off that rare feat of making us grateful for the world we return to after leaving the theater.
Viewers might find that the titular can comes and goes without much narrative weight. If the peach can rings a bell, its tolling may come from a Twilight Zone episode based on a Henry Slesar short story, called “The Old Man in the Cave,” in which a town survives a nuclear holocaust by obeying a computer’s warning against eating up a pile of radioactive canned food. There was a memorable scene in which James Coburn, playing the leader of a band of marauding soldiers, defies the injunction, eats some canned food and pretends to die choking in the dirt — before springing to his feet laughing. (Soon his character really does die.)
I can’t remember today what food was supposed to be in those Twilight Zone cans, but as a kid I imagined the most desirable thing possible — which is to say, fruit cocktail with extra cherries. I can definitely remember the story carrying a much bigger punch than this play. Jones wrote the relentlessly gripping and creepy play Noise (which Furious produced at its old Armory venue). He’s in your face with Canned Peaches, but not your mind — or your gut.?
CANNED PEACHES IN SYRUP | By ALEX JONES | FURIOUS THEATRE COMPANY at Carrie Hamilton Theater, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena | (800) 595-4849 | Through November 10