"Why grandmother, what big teeth you have!"
"The better to eat you out of house and home, my dears."
That's the subtext of "The Granny," Argentine playwright Roberto M. Cossa's comedy with a savage bite that is playing at the Ensemble Theatre. It's immensely amusing fare, but the laughter never obscures Cossa's darker purpose--to protest the economic ravages brought on by his government's inflationary policies during the 1970s.
The process is depicted through the domestic tribulations of the Spadones, a family of Italian immigrants that typify a large part of Argentina's lower middle class. Trying to make ends meet despite the spiraling cost of living and the insatiable appetite of their 100-year-old granny, their struggle becomes increasingly desperate. Picture it as "The Honeymooners" meet "Alien," and you've pretty much got the right tone.
The ravenous old woman is played with remarkable decrepitude by 27-year-old Christopher Vore, transformed via prosthetics and spectacular makeup into a groveling monster. Vore's stooped posture, shuffling gait and ever grasping claws strip away every trace of humanity from the creature, whose sole objective is to eat. The granny's only dialogue is the continual demand for food, uttered in a raspy phlegm-encrusted voice. Whenever the granny is onstage, she's shoveling down everything edible in sight--popcorn, potato chips, candy, bread, even a jar of mayonnaise at one point.
This is without a doubt the most hysterically revolting portrait of pure gluttony since the exploding restaurant patron in Monty Python's "Meaning of Life."
Keeping Granny fed becomes the increasingly frantic pursuit of the entire family. When the honorable, hard-working father, Carmelo (Chris Karys), realizes early on in the play that they're not going to make ends meet, he takes the unprecedented step of forcing his slackard brother Chicho (Craig Taylor Peoples)--an unemployed composer of tango music--to get a job.
The prospect of losing his parasitic niche spurs Chicho into a variety of plots to deal with Granny. Naturally, the schemes all backfire with miserable and even fatal consequences.
Beneath the continual hilarity, there's a disturbing undercurrent about the ease with which people let morals slip away in the face of economic hardship.
"Our family has always been decent. Poor but decent," declares Carmelo in initial revulsion at Chicho's suggestion that Granny could supplement their income by walking the streets. Yet they're all too willing to look the other way when their 20-year-old daughter (Catana Abundis) maintains curious all-night work hours and dresses in increasingly more provocative outfits. Only Carmelo's level-headed wife (Amelia Laurenson) seems to see the situation clearly, though there's not much she can do about it.
Eventually, all pretense of ethics falls away as the daughter begins bringing her customers home. Even the spinster aunt (Rojan Disparte) hits the streets to help quell the granny's swollen appetite.
In the absurdist tradition of Argentine grotesco criollo theater (social satire draped in grotesque exaggeration), Cossa intends the devouring granny to represent the excesses of government feasting at the expense of the working class. Raul Mancada's translation proves so natural and laced with contemporary American slang that it's impossible to avoid a comparison with the growing ranks of house poor in our own middle class.
In an impressive directing debut, stage and film actor Ben Bottoms steers his cast and crew through these tricky waters with sure pacing and keen insight into the play's multiple levels of meaning. The comedy never falters, and the more serious issues, while always present, are not overbearing. The few slow spots are due to the script's over-reliance on exposition, but the performances and staging are engaging throughout.
The play's success is admirably abetted by Shaun L. Wellen's ingenious use of lighting effects for dramatic punctuation and Robert G. Weiss' impeccably detailed Italian household set.
The granny's unbridled appetite serves up a steady diet of laughs, but it's also food for thought.
* WHERE AND WHEN
"The Granny." Performed through April 29, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. at the Ensemble Theatre, 914 Santa Barbara St., Santa Barbara. Tickets are $14 Fridays and Saturdays, $12 Thursdays and $10 Wednesdays and Sundays. There will be a performance Sunday at 7 p.m. and a matinee April 14 at 2 p.m. Call 962-8606 for reservations or information.