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Sunday, January 25, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 24.0° F  Overcast
Arts
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Mercury Players Theatre's Fat Men in Skirts goes for shock over insight
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Mother and son are the flight's only survivors. Karen Moeller, left, and Thom Anthony Rehwaldt.
Mother and son are the flight's only survivors. Karen Moeller, left, and Thom Anthony Rehwaldt.

Rabble-rousing artists, poets and playwrights have tried for centuries to épater le bourgeois -- to give the presumably close-minded average burgher a swift kick in the pants.

Though it's mainly a dark comedy, there's plenty in Nicky Silver's Fat Men in Skirts, presented by Mercury Players Theatre at the Bartell Theatre, to try to jolt audiences: mother-son incest, cannibalism, murder, a dim-witted porn star. (Everything, it seems, except actual fat men in skirts.) The problem is, it's getting harder to shock the ol' bourgeoisie. And in the absence of the truly shocking, there ought to be more laughs and more insight than this disappointing play, written in the late 1980s, supplies.

As the action begins, we meet Phyllis Hogan, the wealthy wife of a movie director who specializes in sentimental flicks about aliens (like E.T., presumably). As she stands gingerly in her gold Jimmy Choos, Phyllis is in a pickle: her plane has crashed en route to Italy. She and her son, Bishop, are the only two survivors of the small flight, and now they're stranded god-knows-where on a beach.

Bishop is an eccentric kid; he's got an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Katharine Hepburn and a frequent stammer. While crashing seems cool to him at first, he quickly becomes hungry. Phyllis' parenting could use a bit of work: "Can you go play with the dead bodies or something? You're 11," she says.

As you can imagine, the dead bodies become a food source for mother and son until, after five years of being stranded, they're rescued.

As the mother, Karen Moeller (who has performed with Madison Rep, Forward and numerous community theater companies) proves once again that she is among the most polished and consistent local actors. Her portrayal of the shrill, aristocratic Phyllis is spot on. Phyllis doesn't want to do the dirty work, like cutting off the arm of a dead nun for food: "I have on my Michael Kors," she tells her son, urging him to do it.

As Bishop, Thom Anthony Rehwaldt must undergo the biggest transformation: from excitable, stammering preteen to amoral young adult. In general, he succeeds, though a long, top-volume monologue about watching monkeys copulate was something I could have lived without ("intense" and "screaming" don't have to be the same).

Film director Howard Hogan (Chris Braunshweig), a skeezy guy in a Hawaiian shirt, has moved on since his family's plane crash -- hence the porn starlet, Pam, sitting in his living room (her credits include Lubricating Rita and Star Whores). It's Pam who notices the footage of Phyllis and Bishop's rescue being played over and over again on CNN.

Howard must make sense of his son, now a feral young adult, and a mentally disjointed wife. As Pam (and, later, a disturbed-yet-chipper young woman named Popo Martin), Jocelyn Fitz-Gibbon is a bright spot in this show. She has a natural way with comedy and doesn't try to oversell the already ridiculous nature of her characters.

If anything, it's the script that is the problem here -- and that's a pretty big problem to have. The characters are so far removed from daily life that their actions don't shed much light on human nature, and the frequent hand-munching and baby-eating doesn't deliver much in the way of laughs or real shock value. In the end, there's a bit of a "so what?" quality to the proceedings, surely not what the playwright (and the director of this production, Monty Marsh) were gunning for.

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