BWW Reviews: Adventuresome Cast Makes VERNON GOD LITTLE Loopy Fun
When a T-shirt is peddled to the audience that reads "I Went to Martirio [City] and All I Got Was an Exit Wound," you know you're in for some dark humor-actually, wicked humor as black as coal.
"Vernon God Little," based on a novel by DBC "Dirty But Clean" Pierre that won Britain's 2003 Man Booker Prize for contemporary fiction, is howlingly funny at Salt Lake's Babcock Theatre with a cast of University of Utah Department of Theatre students.
With precise direction and inventively fluid staging from guest director Matthew Toronto, an accomplished theater professor at Penn State University, "Vernon God Little" is the springboard for the 15-member cast to mature into absurdist acting.
Written by Tanya Ronder originally for London's Young Vic company in 2007, the play begins on karaoke night at the Bar-B-Chew Barn, what might be called a nightclub were it not located in the trailer-trash neighborhood in the fictional city of Martirio, Texas. The sing-along portion of the play is significant because the performed songs-hayseed hits like "Walkin' After Midnight," "A Boy Named Sue" and "Ring of Fire" among them-make subtle comment on the onstage developments.
It's three days after Jesus, a 15-year-old high school student, murdered 16 of his classmates with a rifle and then turned the gun on himself. The hapless Vernon is accused as his best friend's accomplice, and so begins the travails of our antihero. Unable to prove his innocence, Vernon goes on the lam until he is tricked into a confession and winds up on death row, awaiting a vote by reality TV viewers to choose which of several murders should be executed.
With characters as colorful as their language, the gutsy, actors perform multiple roles, and each is a pitch-perfect and steer clear of caricature. There is no-holds-barred, bravura energy coupled with frenetic pacing that add to the comedy. Only a few comic lines are flubbed so they are delivered with a thud.
Most impressive is the trio at the center of the play, Jaten Lee McGriff as Vernon, Emalie Ellis Feguson as his mother and Matthew Jay Romriell as a TV reporter. McGriff sustains the boy's baffled innocence throughout the play along with the audience interest in his tribulations. Feguson is engaging as a man-hungry widow who'd rather wait a new refrigerator to be delivered rather than go her son's trial, Romriell has a sleazy, and winning, charm.
Also notable is Krista Niederjohn in the saucy temptress role, Ella.
"Vernon God Little," is Schadenfreude, or pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others, at its best, and the Babcock Theatre staging is loopy, cynical fun.
Caption: Krista Niederjohn as Ella and Jaten Lee McGriff as Vernon.
(Photo Credit: Michelle Collins)