Celia Rivenbark is box-office gold for TheatreNOW. The columnist-turned-playwright has offered up three years of box-office sellouts at the dinner theatre. Past shows have been inspired by and based around her columns and books. But this year she and Kevin Parker turn the tables and bring to the stage “Southern Fried Bitch,” a plot-driven, original comedy, directed by Beth Swindell with original music by local musician Catesby Jones.
Nee Nichols (Elizabeth Michaels) is the host of a cooking show, which features her cooking for her family. Therefore, she forces her husband, Nick (Ken Campbell) and her two children, Neah (Ashlynn Butrovich) and Nathan (Kai Knight), to play the roles of a perfectly happy, contented, Hallmark-card family. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Actually, Nichols is quite an unpleasant and awful person. Her normal conversation is a series of complaints and threats, laced with profanity and sarcastic put-downs, and spiced with the occasional broad and obvious sexual innuendo.
Nick is dumb as a post and can’t resist hitting on any woman within 5 miles.
Neah is an unpleasant, self-absorbed teenager, with an addiction to her phone.
Perhaps my favorite joke in Act 1 was Knight walking past Michaels and commenting he was leaving to get high. “I know,” she responds without missing a beat. And that is pretty much Nathan for Act 1: a stoner committing to killing the few cells he had.
Trying to hold all the chaos and misery together is Seth (Jay Zedah), a truly overworked production assistant and camera guy. Nee’s show has good ratings on the Food Network, so now she has a shot at “Iron Chef.” If it all holds together, then maybe the misery might have been worth it. But maybe not. Nee is uncontrollably jealous of Rose Ravenel (Erin Hunter), a younger, prettier, kinder, up-and-coming Food Network star. Triggered on a variety of levels, Nee lets loose with a career-ending creed.
Notice a real-life trend? Yes, the show echoes Paula Dean’s missteps from a few years ago.
And that’s just the beginning. It get’s crazier and crazier.
After losing her job and visible means to support her family, Nee launches a public access televangelism program to sell sin-scrubbing sponges—once again utilizing her family as the window dressing for her fake religious mania.
Then the kids launch their own counter plot.
Then everything gets weird.
This is Celia like audiences have never before seen. She’s usually sarcastic, sometimes caustic, and frequently has put-downs that are like a page out of a sorority manual. Yet, she has veered into a land of satire that is … surprising. For a plot arc, it is not what I expected when I sat down, but it paid off in the end.
Rivenbark clearly knows her audience. There are a lot of shows I have been to where older patrons frown and complain about four-letter words and sexual references. The man next to me at “Other Desert Cities” spent all of intermission lamenting the curse words in what’s otherwise a brilliant, powerful, evocative script. Every time Michaels cursed, insulted someone or hurtled an epithet at TheatreNOW, audience members over 50 went wild. Adult situations indeed. Somehow Rivenbark gets away with it, wherein other playwrights have not.
Michaels’ journey as Nee is pretty believable—she goes to some surprising places and convinces every step of the way. The highest praise I can give her is I do not ever want to meet her character in real life or have to spend a meal seated next to her.
Of course, the idea that another woman is jealous of the gorgeous Erin Hunter is just not surprising. The character of Rose Ravenel would be rage-inducing to try to compete with. In the context of this crazy family, she is a breath of calm and reason that makes every moment she is on stage a delight.
The remarkably talented Catesby Jones composed and performed a series of songs that illustrate the links in the story. Now, I would cross the street just to listen to Jones perform. Really, the man is a witty lyricist with a beautiful voice and gifted ear for melody. Combined with the exposition Celia gave him to work with, it’s sort of like Tom Lehr writing a musical about the Kardashians.
TheatreNOW is a dinner theatre, so a play about a cooking show blends pretty organically with Chef Denise Gordon’s menus. Over the last six years, she has changed my mind about many foods.
I am notoriously a difficult and picky eater. My mother would be stunned at the list of foods Gordon has gotten me to try and even like—and more so eat on a reoccurring basis. “Southern Fired Bitch” had me confronting deviled eggs. They were one of my father’s favorite foods. If ever there was a faculty potluck luncheon, it was what he asked my mother to make for him to bring—with the understanding she would make an extra baker’s dozen for him to enjoy at home. I have tried deviled eggs exactly twice in my life: once at home and it did not go well, and once at TheatreNOW, with eggs stuffed with pimiento cheese. (Wait, that’s an option? How come nobody told me this before?) Gordon wins. I am onboard.
I opted for the portobello mushroom and sweet potato “Hot Brown“ cornpone stack. If a portobello’s involved, I am at full attention. Gordon put together an interesting layered dish with housemade corncakes, portobello mushrooms, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes. The whole thing is smothered in a tangy cheese sauce and served with a side of fried potatoes and pickled vegetables. Holy cow! I could eat it every night of the week. But the pièce de résistance was dessert. Gordon presented every diner with an individual lemon meringue pie: tangy, sweet and with meringue that melted in my mouth. Sigh. It was a perfect end to a memorable evening.