Not a Drag: The Artificial Jungle at the Varsity

Kim Surkan took in, with pleasure, “The Artificial Jungle,” by Charles Ludlam, at the Varsity Theater, 1308 4th St. SE, Minneapolis, through July 24. It plays Thursdays-Sundays at 7:30 p.m.; tickets $15, call 612-604-0222.

From "Artificial Jungle"

If you’re a big fan of film noir but also love the thrill of seeing live theater, you no longer have to be content with replaying that worn copy of Double Indemnity for the thousandth time in your VCR at home. Instead, just head over to the Varsity Theater in Dinkytown, where you can see The Artificial Jungle, a campy thriller with all the trappings of the classic film genre.

Set in a pet shop (hence the show’s title), the play introduces the usual stock characters in all their glory: the unappealing husband, his gorgeous younger wife, the doting but overbearing mother, a drifter, and of course the policeman. What makes it different is that all the roles are played by men.

The Manhattan pet shop, a family business owned by the Nurdigers — Chester (Tom Sherohman), his mother Mrs. Nurdiger (Todd O’Dowd), and wife Roxanne (Grant Whittaker) — specializes in exotic animals. But nothing is exciting about life for Roxanne, the femme fatale whose German accent and curly blonde locks make her a cross between Marlene Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe. Much younger than the somewhat repulsive Chester, and mismatched in her marriage to him, she resolves to seize her opportunity when Zach Slade (Leif Jurgensen) enters the shop looking for work.

Although all the characters are pure hyperbole, Whittaker really makes this show with his portrayal of Roxanne, particularly because being in drag is not what is exaggerated in his performance. Whittaker is so natural in his femme fatale role that he had much of the audience checking the program in bemusement. Hats off to director Binky Wood for successfully walking the line between enjoyable campiness and drag performance that can all-too-easily become a tired caricature of femininity.

O’Dowd and Sherohman make for a hilarious mother-son combination; theirs is a mutually doting relationship that is driving Roxanne to desperation. Ben Kreilkamp plays the dual roles of the policeman Frankie Spinelli and regular customer (and comic relief) Mrs. Muncie, who comes in weekly to buy a rat to feed her snake.

The plot twists are film noir by the book — murder, duplicity, guilt — in this case spiced up by the exotic animals in the artificial jungle of the pet shop, a microcosm of the jungle of Manhattan that surrounds it. Seeing this show in the Varsity Theater becomes part of the experience: audience members are invited to order drinks from the bar and sink into one of the couches that border the stage, creating a living-room effect that effectively extends the stage in all directions.

The Artificial Jungle is exactly what it sets out to be: a theatrical spoof that delivers laughs despite (or perhaps because of) its predictable outcome. This play may not keep you on the edge of your seat in suspense, but it‚s definitely a fast-paced and enjoyable hour and a half worth spending in Dinkytown on a summer evening.