Keith Johnson

The K of D: An Urban Legend

Pistol Cat Productions at Balagan Theatre

Budget: $9,054.

Let's blow through a few minor spoilers: "The k of d" refers to "the kiss of death" and "urban legend" refers to Charlotte McGraw, a small girl in a small Ohio town whose lips might separate you from your mortal coil.

The K of D, by Laura Schellhardt (graduate of Brown University, winner of middling awards and residencies, teacher of playwriting at Northwestern University), is a Southern Gothic set in the Midwest, kissing kin to discursive novels by Carson McCullers and T. R. Pearson. In Schellhardt's world, kids with cutoff jeans and skateboards linger on docks at dusk, catching fireflies and frogs, smoking Pall Malls, and speculating about recent deaths in their small town—the dogs, the boy, the nice old man—and what little Charlotte McGraw might have to do with them.

Actor Renata Friedman plays the script's 12 roles. Long and tall, with big eyes, a ponytail, and cutoffs, she jumps with near-cinematic precision between voices and scenes. Her characters are really caricatures—Trent Hoffman always seems to have a cold, Mrs. McGraw is never not fondling her "teacher of the year" bracelets—but don't hate the player, hate the script: Cutting quickly between a dozen different characters requires broad-strokes acting. The script's sins are sins of excess. The story would be twice as compelling if it were cut by a third and, by the one-hour mark, Schellhardt's digressions and repetitive storyteller's tics begin to lose their charm. (A little "the thing about a legend is..." goes a long way.) By the end, we want less of everything. The thing about those digressive, quasi-autobiographical, small-town narratives is, it's hard to make us care about them as much as their authors do. BRENDAN KILEY

BarleyGirl: A Desolate Plain

Implied Violence at a warehouse

Budget: around $6,500.

The show happens in a disused Seattle City Light warehouse just north of where Mercer Street crosses under Dexter Avenue. (Directions: Denny to Dexter, north on Dexter, right on Valley, and you will dead-end at the warehouse.) The back wall is exposed: cloudy-paned factory windows. The set includes two large rectangles of sod, a sod-covered platform for the band to sit on, a sod-covered box for the conductor to stand on, a sod-covered area against the back wall for actors to stand on, and a sod-covered staircase to get up to that area. The room is so deep and wide and airy you feel like you're both inside a theater and outside on a battlefield. There is a chicken coop with a sod floor and what appears to be an army of animated Corn Pops; they are, on closer inspection, baby chickens, chirping softly. Forty of them. Forty-ish. They are moving.

You don't watch an Implied Violence show so much as sink into it. BarleyGirl is "a psychodrama developed using a collection of 107 plays by Implied Violence's Mandie O'Connell," according to the program. You are transported right into the thick of conflicts that haven't been set up or explained, evidently Civil War–related: soldiers, references to the Union, a black woman in a white hoop dress explaining that she killed her son out of love. There is also a birdlike man named Bird, a bunch of papier-mâché horses with bellies full of milk and fake blood and cereal and dog treats that spill out when knifed open, and a running recurrence of vagina-eating. Like all Implied Violence shows, BarleyGirl is a teeming, saturated visual field—in this case, a buzzing, bloody, rape-y mess. With the hordes of performers, the warehouse acoustics, and the individualized sound-effects dome over your head, you occasionally miss a line. But information deprivation is always a part of Implied Violence's work. As is information overload. The arc of Implied Violence's work is absurdist and laden with startling props, but it bends toward life. It's about aliveness. When the chicks come out of their coop, spilling across the stage in a haphazardly herded pool, you can't keep your eyes off the fuzzy living things. They're confused, too. CHRISTOPHER FRIZZELLE

Big River

Taproot Theatre Company

Budget: around $84,000.

Most people know Roger Miller for his humorous songs like "King of the Road" and "Kansas City Star," but Miller also wrote many wise, sharp songs about suicide and heartbreak. Nowhere do Miller's two sides come together as seamlessly as in the soundtrack he wrote for Big River. The 1984 musical would be just another bland adaptation of Huckleberry Finn without Miller's twinkling lyrics to provide the Twain-like sensibilities that most adaptations miss.

In Big River's opening number, all 15 cast members crowd onto Taproot's tiny stage for a boisterous song-and-dance that threatens to spill into the audience. It's a good metaphor for the show; many of the performances feel bigger than the room. Ryan Childers, as Huck's menacing Pap and then as a bombastic actor/con man, thrashes his gangly limbs all over the place, tastefully nibbling on the scenery and pulling back just before he goes too far. Robert Fowler conveys Huckleberry Finn's singular intelligence and his ability to judge the depth and breadth of his own ignorance.

The problems come when the cast starts singing. Instead of bringing Miller's country charm to the lyrics, the cast loads them down with vibrato and musical-theater flourishes, laminating Miller's sly humor in unfunny, American Idol–style gloss. Solomon Davis is a devilishly good Tom Sawyer, for example, but his big solo, "Hand for the Hog," feels like overly mannered karaoke when it should be a grinning-idiot celebration of livestock. The gospel numbers led by Jim—Geoffery Simmons, whose deep voice is a special effect unto itself—are excellent. But the broader inattention to Miller's strengths makes the whole production slightly unsatisfying. PAUL CONSTANT