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Austin Chronicle Evil New Yorkers and Bit-Whoredom

Whaddya Expect From a Group Called FART?

By Ada Calhoun

MAY 1, 2000:  Fabulous and Ridiculous Theatre. Yes, the members of this company are well aware that name abbreviates to FART. They were looking for a long, pretentious name with a silly acronym, and there you have it. Emblematic of the group's healthy sense of the absurd, their name represents the company's steadfast commitment to the oft-neglected principle that taking oneself too seriously is the death of comedy.

At another point in their career, they almost put together an educational outreach program called "Experimental Artistic Theater Meets Education," which abbreviates, of course, to "EAT ME." That didn't take off, but FART has, and after a few years of shows running the gamut from Clive Barker's Frankenstein in Love to Michael Albo's Sexotheque, the New York-spawned troupe has turned its efforts to everyone's favorite tale of ultra-violence, A Clockwork Orange.

Supremely down-to-earth, FART is spearheaded by displaced New Yorkers AnnaCatherine Rutledge, Jeremy Chernick, and Ronit Schlam, all of whom have logged plenty of time behind the curtain as technical directors, stage managers, and the like. So not only are they light on show biz hubris, they also have a technician's adoration of things done well. Top that off with a New York sensibility, and you have a talented, wise-ass crew getting things done.

The long-haired, deep-laughing Rutledge and ring-wearing, hyperactive Chernick met as house and stage manager, respectively, for a musical revue at the Queens College theatre department seven years ago as of the day I interviewed them. Rutledge then followed Chernick to Chicago, where he went to grad school for three years and learned how to work the theatre circuit, making "a bad living quickly." They talk about Chicago as a river-walking, idea-prompting paradise, but Rutledge points out that "it sounds romantic now; we were just really cold."

So is the weather what brought these Yankees down here? Actually, how they came to settle in Austin is a story that's getting pretty typical. On a trip around the country looking for a new and exciting home, Chernick and Rutledge stopped off in Austin to visit a friend, looked around, and said "Dude," because "that's what you say in Austin: Dude." And that was that. A few months later, their old friend from Queens, Ronit Schlam, moved to Austin to join them, and suddenly the Fabulous and Ridiculous Theatre was born.

Schlam is notorious for being late. We were two pitchers into our Casino el Camino interview by the time she showed up, but she was instantly forgiven because her entrance was appropriately funny and dramatic. She stalked in and let herself be coaxed into the story of her recent brush with the cops: "There's another Ronit Schlam ... with a New York license ... and she's wanted." The trio has been collaborating (and watching 90210 together) now for several years.

In the course of our bar talk, two other FART affiliates also drop by: Jeff Long, who shone as Philip Glass in the Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread segment of David Ives' All in the Timing, staged by FART in February; and Mern Davis, FART's costume designer extraordinaire, who appeared as the teenage daughter Mara Blahblue in the production of Sexotheque last fall. Davis, a costume design student at UT, stays long enough to offer her tried-and-true philosophy of life: "The higher the hair, the closer to god."

Davis and Rutledge met backstage as dressers for touring shows at the UT Performing Arts Center. For Cats, they were "fluffer" and "buffer," respectively, and while shining cat paws and poofing tails, they bonded over the humiliation of their lot. Experiences like this and a shortage of funds have lent the troupe a certain scrappy perseverance that keeps it going.

Packrats Rutledge and Chernick, for example, are always securing odd items on the off chance they might be useful in future productions. When a new bathroom was installed in their shared abode, the pair watched workers carting away the old porcelain and said, "Wait a second, don't we need that?" (And it did come in handy in Ass, a pudding-flinging performance piece FART staged for the MOM and Frontera fests. Why pudding? Because "pudding is easier than pie, and much more disgusting.") The FART crew has also cultivated some friends in high places (like the Paramount and Zach Scott) who have come through at various moments of desperation with a gel or time in the shop.

FART's scrappiness comes in especially handy since they have no theatre of their own and must throw themselves at the mercy of space owners with each new show. Usually this is no problem -- the typical plight of a low-budget troupe -- but once in a while they find plans falling through despite their best efforts. Case in point: The troupe originally planned to stage Sexotheque at the Atomic Cafe, but had to adjust those plans when that club's owner committed suicide the day he was supposed to meet them and sort out the details of doing the show there. Schlam even has an e-mail from the owner written on the day of his death saying they'd have to get together another day. Eerie. So Sexotheque wound up at another club, Emo's, which was apparently a great thing. Chernick would come in afternoons and set up the stage while all the bartenders watched Jeopardy.

But beyond "scrappy," let's not forget that this is a troupe named, by its members' own choice, FART, which correctly indicates a high degree of lowbrow humor. No doubt they were delighted with the advice they received from playwright David Ives -- with whom they have worked in summer stock -- on staging his play All in the Timing: "The plays are too silly and too fast, and you have to go for the really cheesy cliché." Cheesy, as one might guess, is not a problem for FART, whose members share what is, according to Davis, "the same weird, quirky sense of humor. This weird good sense of bad taste." Bad taste has so much appeal for FART that its members relish the epitaph "bit whores," a term describing their penchant for going for the low joke whenever they get a chance.

And where other companies in town tread gingerly, avoiding conflict, FART cultivates its smart-ass reputation. Chernick boasts, "We're horrible. We're evil, mean, terrible people. We're from New York." They recently discovered that word on the street is they're "really obnoxious," and they seem to think this is just great. Enough people return to work with them again and again that it's not as though they're hurting for cohorts, and they can't help being a little pushy or caustic or whatever it is. After all, they're Yankees, and all they really want anyway is attention. "Come hate us!" says Chernick. "Just come."

As a motto, it's a far cry from "Drive Friendly," but it is indeed a sign of the times as far as the new wave of the Civil Cold War goes. There is, no matter what anyone tells you, a lingering anti-North sentiment round these parts. Ask southerner Clay Towery, a VORTEX member and actor in A Clockwork Orange. When he was a kid, his grandmother used to say that his belly button was "where the Yankees shot him."

Still, the northerners of FART have done their bit, like any immigrant population, to adapt to local customs. The troupe recently went two-stepping, and Louisiana-born Davis made them eat crawfish, at which they are apparently truly bad. It was nevertheless "really an epic event," according to Chernick, citing the wearing of a cowboy hat as proof. "We did the polka, but we thought we were two-stepping."

What the FART crew hasn't adjusted to, though, is the thing everyone knows but only obnoxious New Yorkers whine loudly about: Local theatre has not found the money pouring into Austin. No one pays well. Connections are required to get anything done. Slacker actors frequently miss rehearsals. Efficiency is not Austin's strong suit, and for people who are used to a quicker pace of life and to the last-minute drama of backstage gaffing and arranging, masking and building, such a laid-back scene can be infuriating.

Or cute. Once the Fabulous and Ridiculous folk did a performance in which they spent the pre-show wandering through the crowd, staring with blank, harrowed faces at the audience. After experience with audiences in Chicago and New York, FART was surprised by how unenthusiastic the Austin audience was. One backhanded compliment that they got (and loved) was: "That was really ... urban." They thought, even, about putting it as a pull quote on their poster, as in: "'That was really urban' -- some lady."

But for all their citification, the Fabulous and Ridiculous crowd is not especially subtle. In fact, they say, "We're anti-subtle." Rutledge is such a fan of over-the-top acting that she'll push actors to be as extreme as possible. When they get mad and do something as a joke, like a terrifically bad accent, more times than not she'll say "I love it!" and then they're stuck. The actors in A Clockwork Orange, seeking to overwhelm Rutledge with their evilness, were only encouraged to be more horrible. Apparently, the Droogs are now pretty damn malevolent, and there won't be any nuance about it.

Rutledge's style of direction is also heavily dependent upon pop culture references. She has made the Clockwork Orange cast view a number of movies, including women-in-prison flicks, The Warriors, and films starring Pam Grier. That way, when she's trying to explain what she's looking for, she just has to tell the actor to imitate an actor in one of the films, and bingo. In the spirit of cultural unity, Rutledge offers that not everyone can follow abstract direction about mood, but "everyone can make the Charlie's Angels pose."

Reactions to FART's decision to stage a musical version of A Clockwork Orange have been mixed, and outcry has run to the tune of "How dare you touch our favorite movie in the world!" But the fact is that Anthony Burgess, author of the original novel, wrote an angry manifesto against Stanley Kubrick's film and followed it up with his own adaptation into a "play with music" in which all the songs are set to Beethoven. Convinced that this was a hilarious farce the Fabulous and Ridiculous folk had concocted, I stopped by the library only to discover, on the first page of Burgess' 1987 play, the Droogs singing:

What's it going to be then, eh?
What's it going to be then, eh?
Tolchocking, dratsing, and kicks in the yarblockos,
Thumps in the gulliver, fists in the plott.
Gromky great shrooms to the bratchified millicent,
Viddy the krovvy pour out of his rot.
Ptitsas and cheenas and starry babushkas --
A crack in the kishkas real horrorshow hot. Give it them whether they want it or not.

Who knew?

FART says they got their inspiration from a much-adapted, movie-influenced version of Burgess' play at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, in which the characters were played as black inner-city youth. According to FART, Russian slang in the American ghetto didn't work all that well, though as techies they had to concede having 20 minutes of onstage rain was cool. Still, FART knew they could do better and went looking for Burgess' original script, calling London all last summer to track it down. After all that, it turned out to be at the UT library. And a musical. When they finally got it, they said, "What the hell?" But in the end, FART decided to be loyal to Burgess' vision. Schlam is doing the music, with Burgess' lyrics set, faithfully, to Beethoven's ninth, fifth, and seventh symphonies.

In other words, lovers of the movie should expect this to be a little different from the Kubrick version, especially because FART is using Forbidden Fruit leather-clad women as all the lead characters, and (as in Sexotheque, which they claim is a total coincidence) "everything's kind of bisexual." So there are at least two reasons to check out this show: One, the chick murderers in S&M gear; two, the sophisticated, wisecracking sensibility that recent growth has left gentle Austin prey to and which Fabulous and Ridiculous Theatre epitomizes. The battle between big city bluster and small-town casual is still too close to call, but with FART around, the former's case is growing stronger by the minute.


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