For the last show of their 2007-2008 season, and their last production at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center before moving downtown to the World Trade Center, the Third Rail tackles Nobody Here But Us Chickens, three one-acts from British playwright Peter Barnes that take a humorous look at people with disabilities. Third Rail consistently aims high and nearly as consistently succeeds; they are a polished, talented ensemble that doesn't shy from difficult material.
I hesitate, though, to call Chickens difficult material, at least in terms of the demands it makes on the audience. (The cast, on the other hand, works as hard as any I've seen outside of a circus tent.) We live in a culture in which it's fully acceptable to mine disabilities for their emotional impact, but laughing at the retarded kid has generally fallen out of favor. Chickens threatens to tamper with these boundaries, but never does, thankfully: Here, disabilities are either made quite absurd (a man who thinks he's a chicken) or addressed in largely logistical terms. While I kept waiting for the political incorrectness I was promised in the director's notes, the show is at its core crowd-pleasing stuff—a tone reinforced by the talking chickens who introduce the show, and provide musical interludes between acts.
The first play is about a man (the excellent Damon Kupper) who has been institutionalized because he thinks he's a chicken. He's soon joined by Hern (Michael O'Connell), another man who thinks he's a fowl—or does he? While the piece feels a bit long, it's actually physically impossible to watch two men in tighty-whities pretending to cockfight without laughing. Try it.
The best thing about this show, and the only thing that borders on eye-opening, comes in the second play, More Than a Touch of Zen, in which Val Stevens gives a hilarious turn as Carver, a judo teacher tirelessly repackaging Eastern traditions for her Western students, who faces her biggest challenge when two men with spastic paralysis decide to take her class: Their bodies tremble uncontrollably as they struggle to "center" themselves, while Carver hits on the bright idea of incorporating their tremors into her program—in much the same way that she has appropriated a hodgepodge of Eastern practices.
The cast rises admirably to the challenges posed by the scripts: Physically, it's a demanding program, and particular props go to Philip Cuomo and John Steinkamp, who tremble and twitch through their entire scene. If the audience is less challenged than the performers, the show nonetheless makes for an entertaining, irreverent evening.