A short tolerance test to see if you're ready for After Taste: What if Kool-Aid had capitalized on the 1978 Jonestown massacre to mass-market its product? You know, with commercials like "Follow the leader! Nine hundred and eleven zealots can't be wrong!" or "It's lip-smacking, thirst-quenching, heart-stopping good!" If you're not gagging, Cardiff Giant's malicious, delicious dark musical After Taste may be the tonic your sick soul craves. Its sardonic story comes criminally close to a Springtime for Jim Jones.
Cardiff's communal creation is the freshest and meanest musical since Friends of the Zoo polished up such gems as Zoo Plate Special and Zoo Thousand One. (Finally Cannibal Cheerleaders on Crack gets some competition.) A reckless romp, After Taste spoofs our obsessions with trendiness and fitness and cynically argues that, with the right packaging, you can sell anything.
Enlivened by a delightfully supple and melodically rich score by musical director Patrick Sinozich, After Taste charts the rise and fall of a killer craze--a nouvelle-cuisine item called Fatal Food: eat three cans and you're free of all earthly sorrow. Its inventor is a slimy opportunist named Harvey Lygea (Bob Fisher); this wacko entrepreneur regularly confesses to a pet peanut and cynically believes that "People get what they want." And why defy a death wish you can profit from?
Desperate for a cover story, Paul (Greg Kotis), the sleazebucket editor of a life-style tabloid, and his flunky reporter Peter (Phil Lortie) hook up with Lygea to promote the product, believing it's the kind of truth-or-dare proposition Americans can't resist. To peddle the stuff these hucksters hire Little Suzy (John Hildreth), a simpering eight-year-old star of cereal commercials, to tape surreal one-minute spots. Though Suzy's sleazy agent Gomez (Laura T. Fisher), a nightmare vision in garish toreador pants and spangled denim jacket, warns her not to do it, Little Suzy longs for some serious fare and is delighted with this new acting opportunity.
The gustatory poison really catches on when a performance artist stages her own demise, downing three cans as she babbles unintelligible verse. Also embroiled in the malevolent marketing are trendy-chic restaurateur Howard Beethoven (Scott Hermes), whose business is threatened by the new sensation, and his malaprop-spouting assistant Tendre (Hannah Fowlie), who provides Fatal Food's addlepated copy.
When earnest hack Peter and Little Suzy become disgusted with the wages of death and turn on Lygea, the fiend kidnaps the tenderhearted tot and threatens to off her on national TV by cramming Fatal Food down her tiny gullet. Even though Lygea eventually self-destructs ("Don't let people push you off the cliff--jump off yourself!"), his "self-selective plague" has already done its grisly work. (Like Jim Jones and "Dr. Death," Lygea is the moral cousin of the inventor of crack.)
Despite a slow start and some too-silly exchanges that need paring, Mark Ray Hollmann's staging is raucous fun, full of quirky touches--the result of near-perfect casting--that Dickens would have killed for. The best ingredients are Sinozich's all-purpose songs, with cunning lyrics by the company: especially on target are Little Suzy's soft-rock declaration of independence, "Big Girl"; middle-aged Gomez's truly nauseating inventory of physical deterioration, "Hair in My Ears"; the seething, contrapuntally complex first-act finale, a vaudevillian wowzer called "In the Can"; and the quick-step showstopper "Committee for Life."
The wiliest troupe since the Illegitimate Players in Of Grapes and Nuts, Hollmann's yuksters make the audience shake like San Francisco. Bob Fisher's hustler Lygea is creepy enough to seem ripe for committal, Lortie's gumshoe reporter reinvents The Front Page stereotypes, and Kotis's stiff-necked, venal editor could easily attract Rupert Murdoch.
Laura Fisher's Gomez, cavorting in choreography that seems stitched together from Gong Show outtakes, triumphantly pulls out all the stops to belt forth the grungy "Hair in My Ears." Fowlie's Tendre tears into "We're Through," a dippy duet with Hermes's deadpan Beethoven.
But the wildest work in this tasteless After Taste comes from Hildreth: his hulking cutie-pie Little Suzy, an experience that combines Shirley Temple and drugs, is oddly touching. When Suzy feels crushed by the burden of the evil her endorsement has unleashed and launches into her "Mea Culpa" duet with Gomez, it's as poignant as it is sidesplitting.
Louise LeBourgeois provides the ingenious cartoon props, and Ayun Halliday the tell-all costumes (Tendre and Beethoven's fashion-plate punk garb is especially wonderful).
After Taste is something of a comeback for this improv-based troupe, who took big leaps with LBJFKKK and Love Me but sold themselves short in All Eight Die and Rancho Obscuro. With this witty but not pretty antiholiday offering, they're back to their best--and with a ticket price of $5, well, just say yes to Fatal Food.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzanne N. Plunkett.