You have to wonder at the sheer gutsiness of the Buntport Theater Company, whose members took an absurd idea and then — instead of playing around a bit, giggling and letting it go — decided to carry the concept forward, step by step, moment by moment, to its logical and intensely illogical ending, trusting that others would willingly give themselves up to this phantasmagorical universe. Jugged Rabbit Stew is an original musical whose sunnily innocent surface carries a darker underlay, an underlay involving blood, dismemberment, the way humanity destroys its gods, predation and carnivorousness — which takes on a whole new dimension when the meat in question not only walks and talks like a man, but can perform astounding feats of magic. All of this is pounded home by Adam Stone's inspired rock songs, some hilarious, some carrying a thumping portentousness reminiscent of Andrew Lloyd Webber.
The plot concerns Snowball (Erik Edborg), a giant rabbit who works with a magician called Alec the Amazing and All-Powerful (Evan Weissman). At his best, Alec can pull off only the simplest and most obvious sleights of hand; Snowball is the genuine magical power behind the act. This bunny is anything but sweet and fluffy, however. He's a miserable, scruffy creature who looks a little like the ugly, ragged-toothed White Rabbit in Jan Svankmajer's film Alice and who likes stealing things that others value and are useless to him, simply to make as many people as possible miserable: the VHS tape of a graduation ceremony, a gravy boat, an old-fashioned gramophone. All of these objects hover below the ceiling throughout the action. Snowball has confiscated the legs of magician's assistant Mystical Marla (Hannah Duggan), replacing them with those of a middle-aged workman so that she can no longer dance; he took away Alec's right arm. Despite the depredations he's wrought on their bodies, both Marla and Alec are in love with him. Also dangling from the ceiling, seated, is Woman (Erin Rollman), a regular audience member whom Snowball loved until he spotted her one evening in the company of another rabbit. A chatty, cheerful person in pink ruffled shoes, remarkably unfazed by her predicament, Woman eventually falls in love with Alec's disembodied arm, played by Brian Colonna, and the two enact a Hollywood fantasy in which she is the gutsy ranch owner and he the traveling farm hand (pun most definitely intended) who'll save her land.
This is not the only place where the production underlines its own artificiality, satirizing magic shows and theatrical conventions in general (a character standing in the distinct spotlight that universally signifies a soliloquy overhears another in a similar spotlight, to the latter's great irritation), and looking at the ways we use language to create story and propel action. They niggle over usage: the fact that a rabbit is not a hare (unfortunately, "hare" works much better for song lyrics) and whether the potatoes in TV dinners are whipped or mashed. Woman is a chattering ninny most of the time, but Snowball had originally imagined her as an intellectual and, toward the play's end, she becomes the figure he'd imagined, lapsing into erudition and discussing his role as tragic hero: Is he the classical noble-but-with-a-fatal-flaw model, the romantic Byronic type in rebellion against convention, or a twentieth-century anti-hero?
Edborg's crazed energy somehow shines through the face-obscuring bunny mask, and Colonna also manages to surmount a smothering black costume that covers everything but his right arm and delivers a sizzling performance. Duggan is by turns cynical, angry and pathetic as lovelorn Marla; Rollman makes Woman as appealing as she is fluff-headed. Weissman has tended to play the quieter and more sensitive Buntport roles in the past, but here he lets loose with a brilliant cascade of tics and tricks, and a balls-out singing style that parodies every dopey, mannered vocalist you could ever imagine.
With its truly startling originality, Jugged Rabbit Stew is one of the deepest, weirdest, funniest and most assured things Buntport has done in its decade of amazing theater. It also testifies to the fruitfulness of the collaboration with Stone, as the Buntporters take on the musical form, bow to its conventions, then twist it every which way and back until it becomes their own. Don't miss this production.