Richard Brautigan’s 1964 novel “In Watermelon Sugar” is an odd selection to adapt into a stage production, but Hip Pocket Theatre usually doesn’t go for the obvious choices.
The work was part of the group’s first season in 1977, adapted by co-founder Johnny Simons, and the Hipsters have presented it in every decade since: 1986, 1998, 2006 and now, 2017. This time, the adaption comes from John Murphy, who also directs. Hip Pocket also has adapted Brautigan’s “The Hawkline Monster.”
Murphy springboards from Simons’ adaptation that was staged the four other times, with the major difference being that instead of Simons’ signature technique of a voiceover for an actor who pantomimes — in this case the narrator, called in this adaptation The Man Without a Regular Name — Murphy has the actor, Jeff Stanfield, speaking the narration.
That detracts a bit from Simons’ extra layer of otherworldliness that a disembodied voice adds to Brautigan’s bizarre post-apocalyptic tale of a world called iDEATH. It’s a passive existence there, and while books and vegetables are scarce (only statues of artichokes, carrots and other veggies), there is a revered trout hatchery, changing colors of sky and life-sustaining watermelon and its sugar. There is a place called Forgotten Works where they know not to go, where cruelty and evil people like InBoil (Ryan Seale) live.
Brautigan’s book was born out of his reaction to counterculture youth culture in the 1960s, and several interpretations for what it all means float around out there.
Even on HPT’s engaging stage, highlighted by fantastic puppets, set and costumes by James Maynard, it’s a chore to keep track of, and a few times, especially in long stretches of narration, boring. Stanfield is not a compelling storyteller, and a few of the acting performances from newcomers are rough.
But there’s plenty to bring it back to life, notably Quentin McGown’s performance as Charley, and Elysia Worcester’s dancer portrayal of the Statue of Mirrors (great costume by Maynard). The scene in which InBoil and his gang do grave harm to themselves is unintentionally funny, and the movement nicely choreographed.
Maynard’s fantastic trout (maneuvered by Damek and Derek Salazar) and tiger puppets (Brian Cook) are the standouts. The Grand Old Trout is a beaut whose head is worn as a helmet/mask by the actor, and the body and tale are moved by rods behind the actor’s back.
Maynard’s set is dressed with striking Chinese lanterns and gear wheels — it’s one of the prettiest sets I’ve seen at Silver Creek Amphitheatre. Fans of Brautigan’s book will likely take to this production; for others, it’s another of Hip Pocket’s curiosities.