By Sarah Tuft
It was baking hot in LA but it wasn’t just the Lounge Theatre’s air conditioning that made the time fly. It was the inventive fast-paced antics of Fell Swoop Playwrights who’ve cooked up a delicious production in The Last Temptation of Paula Deen. Fell Swoop is the playwrights’ collective responsible for the 2013 Fringe hit, The Miss Julie Dream Project, about which LA Weekly’s Steven Leigh Morris said, “the primary beauty of the Fell Swoop Playwrights’ project lies in the way it transforms the play’s dodgy sexual politics – and Strindberg’s psychological explanations for his characters’ destructive behavior – from the logic of cause and effect to the surreal.”
And Fell Swoop Playwrights has done it again. For the 2014 Hollywood Fringe, they’ve served up an extra helping of the famed shamed Southern restaurateur and entrepreneur, Paula Deen. And just as The Miss Julie Dream Project stripped bare the sexual politics underlying a play, The Last Temptation of Paula Deen cracks open the racial politics underlying a personality, whose celebrity rose like a biscuit and fell like a sack of cornmeal busted wide open at the seams. And that’s what Fell Swoop does to Paula’s life. For the uninitiated, Fell Swoop Playwrights is “a collective committed to offering public reading and production opportunities for its member playwrights.” For the Hollywood Fringe Festival, this inclusive mission expands into a highly collaborative process. According to founding member and Co-Executive Producer,Kyle T. Wilson, Fell Swoop writers were challenged to write a scene with few restrictions. For The Miss Julie Dream Project, they were asked to write a dream sequence with Julie as the protagonist. For The Last Temptation of Paula Deen, they were to write a scene either inspired by Paula or with her in it.
Happily, this unique brand of co-authorship seems to encourage a layered vision that resonates with truth and crackles with biting satire. The resulting “bio-play” is specifically theatrical, relying more on implication and metaphor than facts and chronology. Kyle admits that although he initially envisioned a Citizen Kane-style portrait, as they worked with the pages, a Faustian theme started to emerge. And so Paula makes a deal with the devil, or maybe just with her African American imaginary enablers, The Butters, which leads to her inevitable meltdown.
The Last Temptation of Paula Deen was served up by Kyle T. Wilson, working with fellow playwrights Kayla Cagan, Jeremy Frazier, Samm Hill, J. Holtham, Lisa Kenner Grissom, Michelle Meyers, Emily Brauer Rogers, Kimberly Shelby-Szyszko and Jennie Webb. These playwrights have impressive pedigrees: Fremont Centre Theatre; Living Art and Rubber Road Productions; Mabou Mines; Soho Rep; The Actors Studio; Milwaukee Repertory Theater; Lincoln Center; The Berkshire Theater Festival; The KGB Red Room; The Tribeca Performing Arts Center; The Samuel French Festival; Manhattan Theater Club; and Wingspan Arts.
The play features a large ensemble of characters plus a Chorus – all pulled off by only six actors. Sasha Harris, in the title role, gives a virtuoso performance that tiptoes between satire and truth. She squirms and hoots her way through all the Paulas from toddler to toppled empire, revealing a recipe for disaster that also made for a “Paula Deen” brand that sold like hotcakes. Tiffanee Hall, as Baby Butter, grins and gapes but underneath her perfectly contextualized mugshots, she simmers with a growing rage. Korama Danquah brings elegance to the work as Female Chorus, and is especially wonderful as the garage sale shopper with a secret. Edward Alvarado as Male Chorus also makes a wonderfully sleazy Jimmy Deen and a perfectly hapless Bubba. Wayne Scott and Tamika Katon-Donegal complete the strong ensemble with a Betty and Brother Butter, who cycle between deluded, determined and defiant. Katie Chidester’s direction helps to clarify the scenarios, despite the play’s multiple time shifts, locations, characters and their entrances and exits. That she was able to craft a consistent tone for this wide range of perspectives is to her credit.
And for those of you hoping for a recap of Paula’s renowned tearful apology, as Paula herself says in this play, “I do not cry… unless it’s on television in front of millions of Americans!”
The Last Temptation of Paula Deen – By Kayla Cagan, Jeremy Frazier, Samm Hill, J. Holtham, Lisa Kenner Grissom, Michelle Meyers, Emily Brauer Rogers, Kimberly Shelby-Szyszko, Jennie Webb, and Kyle T. Wilson; directed by Katie Chidester
WITH: Edward Alvarado (Male Chorus), Korama Danquah (Female Chorus), Tiffanee Hall (Baby Butter), Sasha Harris (Paula Deen), Tamika Katon-Donegal (Betty Butter) and Wayne Scott (Brother Butter).
Lighting by Jonathan Daroka and Jake Forbes; sound by Benjamin Watt; producer, Kyle T. Wilson; production stage manager, Amber Bruegel. Presented by Fell Swoop Playwrights -. At The Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles CA 90038; website – www.fellswoopplaywrights.org. Dates to be announced. Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes.
Photo by Luke Gattuso