FAST FOOD OR: IN THE BELLY OF THE DRAGON
at Cafe Voltaire
"This is what's happening," actor Bryan T. Carmody tells us, his face lit only by the flickering glow of a cigarette lighter. "It's here. It's now. And I'm talking to you." With these simple words, the audience in the Cafe Voltaire basement is drawn into the story in much the way one was once captivated by tales told round a campfire. But the chilling yarns related here are not ridiculously improbable accounts of grim-faced men with golden arms and metal claws; the demons in Michael Steffens-Moran's Fast Food or: In the Belly of the Dragon seem to come straight out of real life, making them all the more frightening. After all, which is scarier: the evil voice demanding "Who took my golden arm?" or the smirk on the face of a father witnessing his son's humiliation at an Arby's?
Though poorly titled and far too brief, Steffens-Moran's one-man show is an immensely entertaining excursion into the fears of a young man who has never been able to relate to his father. Using an imaginatively structured series of scenes, Steffens-Moran takes us back and forth through childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood, from the fantasies of a boy imagining dragons flying about his sandbox to the inner tortures felt by a 21-year-old working at a fast-food restaurant in a mall food court and reliving the abuses inflicted on him by his dad. For the half hour it lasts, Steffens-Moran's idiosyncratic poetic effort is almost always innovative and exciting.
Fast Food alternates between intense drama and wry humor, inspiring laughter just before sending a chill up the spine. One of the most amusing sections is a violent fantasy sequence in which the young man pictures himself as an old-time western gunfighter seeking revenge on the littering, Bon Jovi-haired mall rats who make his shift at the fast-food joint a living hell. Luxuriating in his "polyester poncho flapping in the shopping mall breeze," the "beefslinger" takes down one mall rodent after another, whistling the theme to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and hissing in his best Clint Eastwood voice, "Hey boy, your mother doesn't work here. Pick up your mess."
In a disquieting little scene that follows, the young man recalls helping his father work under the hood of his car, trying desperately to please the man he hates and fears. Carmody brilliantly executes Steffens-Moran's short dialogue elucidated by narration, capturing the friction between a frightened boy quivering as he holds a flashlight and the unsatisfied father brutally lashing out with an occasional "Hold the goddamn thing still." Fast Food is filled with insightful moments like these as the young man comes to understand his father's pain, meeting him in the belly of a dragon and seeing that he too was once a meek little boy abused by his father. One hopes for Steffens-Moran's sake that this tale isn't autobiographical, but there is an honesty about it that makes one fear it is.
Any flaws in Babaganouj Theatre's debut come from Steffens-Moran's occasional overwriting and Carmody's underenunciation. Some of the narration gets a bit repetitive, describing things we can already see for ourselves. We don't need to be told at one point that the young man is frightened and almost crying; we can see it on Carmody's face. He's a wonderfully athletic and energetic actor who really does a great job of making the words come to life. His only trouble was that on opening night he suffered from garbled diction, which might have prompted an audience member to suggest he "say it, don't spray it." He rushed through some lines, making them essentially unintelligible.
Director Mark D. Johnson has kept things as simple as possible, letting the words and story carry the show and using very subtle lighting effects to create the requisite moods. Though Fast Food is short, it's an impressive debut.