The upstairs bar at Lucy's Hat Shop plays nicely as a 19th-century Western saloon. Expectant audience members mill around sofas or the bar, chatting and buying shots of whisky in little plastic cups. A few ladies in lascivious makeup mingle smilingly, and grim-looking roughs in bandanas and boots gamble at a card table in the corner. The only things missing are a drunken tussle, crooning whores, and a shotgun over the bar.
Two of these three are almost immediately provided—I won't say which—and we're ushered into the back room, which has tiered seats overlooking another bar. Bars are, of course, central to the plot of any good Western, and on a stage behind this bar is a live band of three dusty-looking musicians, already sawing away at violins and strumming guitars. They will continue to provide a nearly unbroken accompaniment to Brat Productions' world premier of Brian Grace-Duff's The Last Plot in Revenge.
Last Plot is a risky, ambitious show. It combines puppetry, dinner theater, and live music with a complex, richly themed plot.
In a twist on Romeo and Juliet's star-crossed lovers, the scions of the feuding families failed to hook up 20 years ago, and over decades developed bitterness and a smooth routine of mutual harassment. Meanwhile, one bloody-minded man builds a business on the quick overturn of cemetery plots, and vicious gunmen bring up two young girls, with varying results.
At times, Last Plot is confusing. In contrast to certain story elements—which are purposefully unexplained ("It doesn't add up!" repeats a fairly central song)—there are bits I simply could not follow. I honestly never minded much, as thrilling performances, well-wrought characterizations, and a clever script easily make up for this weakness.
And after all, it is in part this abundance of themes and surprises—and this tiny space's ability to switch quickly from bawdy brawls and musical numbers to quiet conversations and iconic desert nights, complete with circling crows—which holds the audience comfortably in the palm of its theatrical hand.
"Violence. Puppets. Dinner," says the tagline on their postcards. While the dinner is nothing special (mealy pasta in smallish portions), the puppets (Aaron Cromie) and violence (Brett Cassidy) are both well executed. Realistic throat-slittings and shootings are common enough, but it's rare to see a truly believable slap or beating on stage, particularly in the intimate theaters so common in Philly. Fight director Brett Cassidy has used the theatricality of this production to insert some believable smacks and punches in with sanguineous throat-slashings.
Props (Doug Greene) and puppets provide endless surprises. The story takes turns being told by live actors, puppet shows, life-size puppets, flip-books and dioramas, etc.
The ensemble is tight, and actress Sarah Schol gives a particularly impressive performance as Madam Hennepin Scrapfield, the lock-jawed bartender and whorehouse madam. Grimacing maliciously from behind the bar, Schol embodies the roughness, cruelty, and ironic tragedy of life in Revenge, Montana.