The Death Store 

Lawrenceburg gets more than big laughs in spoofing the big boxes

America has found a nefarious villain to rally against, and it's not the terrorists, the North Koreans or Simon Callow. It's Wal-Mart. The superstore franchise has taken fire from countless advocacy groups, as well as the recent muckraking documentary Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price. Closer to home, two local stage plays have savaged the retailer, both under the thinly disguised nickname "Mall-Mart." Avant-garde playhouse 7 Stages went after the corporate bully in its recent adaptation of Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich's exposé of the plight of the working poor.

Meanwhile, the world premiere of Lawrenceburg occupies the other end of the intellectual spectrum at Dad's Garage's Top Shelf Theatre. Atlanta actor/writer Travis Sharp offers a raucous spoof with a social conscience that equals its fondness for media trivia. Inspired by the playwright's hometown, Lawrenceburg explores Wal-Mart's devastating impact on small-town America by closely following the story of the original Star Wars, only relocated to the rural South reminiscent of "The Dukes of Hazzard." Set not so long ago in a county far, far away, Lawrenceburg resembles the original Millennium Falcon, a rickety contraption capable of blasting into humorous hyperdrive.

Lawrenceburg's sinister, black-clad sheriff (John Benzinger), who doubles as Mall-Mart's head of security, arrests activist/homecoming queen Lily Mae (Eve Krueger). Lily Mae's old classmate Mark (Z Gillispie), a young, untested postal employee, discovers the implications of Mall-Mart's plans to open a store in his hometown, so he enlists rag-tag allies against an implacable superstore.

Lawrenceburg might be a little slow to get into gear, but soon enough you eagerly anticipate the next George Lucas plot point to be tweaked. Mark finds a mentor not in a former Jedi knight but in Weird Wally (Randy Havens), an aging hippie and anti-establishment lawyer. Perhaps the cleverest pop mash-up is the parallel to the scene in which the Death Star blows up Princess Leia's home planet. Here, a Mall-Mart wrecking ball demolishes Lily Mae's father's department store on the town square. Dad's Garage has long loved to lampoon familiar, kitschy movies and shows, but Lawrenceburg thrives by exposing the serious issues beneath its silly set pieces.

Through the dialogue of a Han Solo character, the Blacktop Cowboy (Matt Horgan), Sharp reveals a long memory for old-fashioned, rhyming CB radio slang like "a Kojak with a Kodak." Perhaps by harking back to so many pop artifacts of the late 1970s, Lawrenceburg subconsciously taps into some Jimmy Carter-era liberal idealism.

Most of the likeable cast members play multiple roles, with Sharp serving as a singing troubadour (with Joel Abbott as his banjo-picking sidekick) -- like the Dukes' good ol' narrator. Sharp also nearly steals the play as the sermonizing, Boss Hogg-style Mayor, who punctuates his declarations with a triumphant "Haw!" Asked by one concerned citizen whether they'll lose all their jobs to Mall-Mart, the Mayor asserts that seeing the big new thing replace the old is the American way, just like how "Jesus came along to put the Jews out of business." The religious parodies go deeper than you expect. Benzinger's Darth Vadery lawman draws supernatural powers not from the dark side of the force, but by being a fanatical snake-handler.

Lawrenceburg shows no hesitation at cracking dumb jokes in rapid succession, even though it loses some of its momentum near the end. This comedy serves as a reminder that the sophistication and level of acting in Dad's original, scripted plays prove not that much higher than its improvised shows like Scandal! A bit with the Mayor getting hit in the crotch is funnier more for Sharp's convincing dry heaves than the actual slapstick. But why demand highbrow material from a show that takes "Dukes," a TV program beloved of dynamite arrows, as one of its sources?

Director Freddie Ashley keeps Lawrenceburg fast paced, inventive and loose enough to retain the congenial improv spirit while keeping its serious themes in focus. With raunchy, at times sophomoric comedy (like the running gag about the "angry cornholer"), Lawrenceburg will keep the playhouse's young beer-drinking constituency amused.

Lawrenceburg's real-world concerns, however, offer a sign that Dad's Garage just might be growing up.


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