Setting up camp
Chico Cabaret has some fun with the ‘serious’ Reefer Madness
Camp is a term that generally applies to two types of entertainment. One is as a form of ridicule for films that are produced with such misplaced earnestness that they invite unintended hilarity. The other is to denote such high-spirited absurdities as The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which deliberately sidesteps ridicule by laughing at itself first.
Produced in deadly earnestness in 1936 by a church group, the camp classic Reefer Madness falls into the former category. With its depiction of wholesome teens lured into a crazy, smoke-choked world and becoming sex-crazed, cackling hooligans and whores after one drag of the odious weed, the flick found its true niche in the off-campus dens of American stoners of the ‘70s, who after just one hit of the cinematic curiosity would find themselves cackling just as madly at the simple-minded fanaticism of the message.
With its current production of Reefer Madness: The Musical (also made into a movie for Showtime in 2005), Chico Cabaret takes the two camps and tamps them into a bowl, firing them up into a giddy potpourri of howlingly funny excess.
Set in the ‘30s, it features a lecturer (Phil Ruttenburg) at the podium of Benjamin Harrison High School who clues us in to the deadly threat of the marijuana that is tempting our youth, a verbal agitprop that carries all the subtlety of a driver’s ed film.
He introduces us to high school sweethearts Jimmy Harper (Sam Ruttenburg) and Mary Lane (Jessica Nelson), two simpleminded yet pretty youths of the kind that middlebrow America seems to favor as the ideal teenagers. Two intellectually incurious types who take Romeo and Juliet to be the ultimate in romanticism without ever bothering to read it through and take heed of the foreshadowing.
Jimmy and Mary drop by the local five-and-dime (ask your grandparents) for a swinging good time, where Jimmy is lured away to learn some new moves by the predatory Jack (Dan Matthey), who takes him back to his pad to introduce the boy to the viper den hostess Mae (Jill Miller), baby-selling pot whore Sally (Vanessa Ceccarelli) and debauched college boy Ralph (Conan Duch) … and a small but deadly twist of fate called Mary Jane. The Reefer, Assassin of Youth.
With just one toke, Jimmy is transformed into a wild-eyed, trembling junkie whose clock is locked at 4:20. From there it’s a downward spiral that starts with the looting of the cash box of the local church and ends in a phantasmagoria of rape, cannibalism, murder and madness.
Too bad Jimmy and Mary didn’t pick All’s Well That Ends Well as the Shakespeare work to favor.
Of course, the pleasure here is in watching the performers cut loose and chew the scenery without a trace of self-consciousness. As the leads, Ruttenburg and Nelson get to have a field day as they shift abruptly from mawkish sincerity into viper mode, and as the former frat boy with the world’s worst case of the munchies, Duch tears up the stage with the crazed vibe of an Animal House-era John Belushi.
Added to the mix is the Big JC distributing pieces of himself, FDR taking a break from the pre-planning of The Good War, a treacherous soda jerk (Shannon E. Gans) and a Greek choir prone to breaking out into production numbers at the drop of the hat. And for its seemingly small size, the Chico Cabaret house is a surprisingly comfortable fit for production numbers.
As a thea-a-tuh goer who prefers a cast hitting the stage in a frenzy of barely controlled anarchy over the plodding earnestness of a production that means something, I found the cast’s air of sheer enjoyment in presenting the material at hand to be a welcome diversion. Chico Cabaret’s upcoming production of Rocky Horror Live would seem to be in able hands.