Shaggy Duck Story

It’s not every weekend I see a ballet-horror-comedy about killer ducks that “skeletonize” unsuspecting theater geeks and impregnate humans with spores that cause ducks to burst forth from their asses in a spray of blood and intestines. You might think it would be, because that sounds pretty solidly up my alley, but in fact no. Duck Lake, now playing at the Jewish Theatre under the auspices of PianoFight, bills itself as “probably the world’s first ballet-horror-comedy,” and seeing as how I can’t think of any examples to contradict that, I’ll go along with it.

Raymond Hobbs, Sean Conroy and Leah Shesky in Duck Lake. Photo by Quinn Wharton.

It’s the first full-length play by PianoFight’s in-house sketch comedy troupe Mission CTRL, creators of the charmingly named skit-a-palooza The SHIT Show, and hooboy is its length full! The show runs two and a half hours, and the intermission doesn’t come until the 80-minute mark. If in theory that seems absurdly long for an extended skit about ducks exploding out of people’s asses, in practice it totally is. Written and produced collectively by the troupe, Duck Lake definitely has a made-up-as-it-goes-along quality to it that makes it feel like it goes on and on and on. Fortunately amid all the goofy stuff the ensemble throws against the wall, some of it sticks, so there are plenty of hysterical moments along the way.

The ducks are embodied by four dancers (Christy Crowley, Caitlin Hafer, Anne Jones and Emma Rose Shelton) in fluffy-tailed mallard-themed ballet outfits, sometimes armed with racks of puppet ducks. With serious, impassive faces, they do a few dramatic if awkward quasi-balletic hopping dances, making shadow-puppet duck bills with their hands.

In fact, for a ballet-horror-comedy there’s very little dancing in Duck Lake. What’s there is pleasingly choreographed by Brian Gibbs of TagSF and Leah Shesky, but for the most part the ballet theme of the show is limited to the fact that the obligatory group of idiots in the woods is there to rehearse a crappy musical based on Swan Lake.

The biggest idiot of all is the megalomaniacal director, who leads the cast through endless trust exercises and makes them suckle at a pair of latex breasts he wears over his shirt. Raymond Hobbs milks it for all it’s worth and then some as director Barry Canteloupe, lisping, heaping abuse on everyone with impotent rage, and rarely letting someone else’s line go by without adding some peanut-gallery innuendo. His shtick is overdone and hit-or-miss, but he epitomizes the time-honored horror-movie type of the monstrous control freak whom you most want to see get killed.

He makes all this actors use only the names of their characters, but in heroine Odette’s case, it also happens to be her name. An erstwhile TV star getting back to her musical-theatre roots, she’s played by Leah Shesky with comic chops, a lovely singing voice and some strong dancing in a tacked-on ballet scene at the end.

The large cast is generally pretty solid. Alex Boyd is charmingly melodramatic as the caped thespian Von Rothbart, and Sean Conroy is a cocky but sensitive sheep in wolf’s clothing as the leader of a gang of jet skiing jerks who turns out to be an old musical theater flame of Odette’s.

Joseph Scheppers is an appealingly happy-go-lucky dunce as technical director Bob, who dotes on Barry as if he doesn’t hear or understand the abuse the director heaps on him. Meredith Terry is doubly entertaining as the uptight stage manager (“Again, it’s not really my job to like something”) and an amusingly vapid jet ski chick alongside David and Daniel Burke’s stoner dudes.

Evan Winchester makes a wild-eyed coot as the obligatory creepy old groundskeeper with an enormous fake beard, as well as a fatally lackadaisical ranger. Duncan Wolde is priceless as one of the group’s comrades who’s seduced away to the side of the ducks, and PianoFight artistic director Rob Ready is also hilarious as the late-appearing boss villain, the Harem Master, ranting about nonprofit arts organizations in a marvelously ludicrous duck-king outfit. (Costumes are by Conroy, Danielle Haacker, and Rose Plant.)

While it’s not really a ballet, it is sort of a musical, in that people occasionally burst into song and dance. All the songs are hijacked from other musicals (West Side Story, Les Misérables, Cats, Rent), with small lyric changes to make them about jet skis or murderous ducks. Most of them have exploding butts crammed into the lyrics somehow, lest we somehow forget for a second what we’re up against.

As with most horror spoofs—or most horror anything, for that matter—the death scenes are a large part of the appeal. The one rock where all the anal explosions occur becomes more and more infamous as the play goes on, so that it doesn’t take much more than for someone to rest on it to get an anticipatory laugh. The set by Gabrielle Patacsil, Danny Tran and Dan Williams has a nicely simple storybook quality, with cartoonish cutout trees and round cardboard rocks.

Still, the show feels less like a play than like a skit that’s been allowed to keep going for a few hours, loose and meandering—a shaggy-duck story. That said, there’s at least one character listed in the program who doesn’t appear in the play at all, so maybe it’s still evolving. Although there are a lot of funny comic bits throughout, the pace of Devin McNulty’s staging is sometimes slack, made more so by lengthy scene changes. (At least some of those changes are enlivened by the scenery being hauled by the mysterious ducks.) Even the curtain call is long, combined with a spiel about what happened to each character later. But by then you may want to know, because you’ve been through a bonding experience together—laughter, certainly, but also the gnawing dread that you’re never going to get out of Duck Lake alive.

Duck Lake
PianoFight Productions
Through July 28
The Jewish Theatre
470 Florida St.
San Francisco, CA

Show #68 of 2012, attended July 20.

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