(Animal Cruelty plays tonight at Theatre Off Jackson. It continues on every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday until November 9th.)
It can't be easy to imbue a chicken-shaped piece of cardboard on a stick with a personality. Scot Augustson, the talent behind Sgt. Rigsby & His Amazing Silhouettes, doesn't aim for "expressive" in his puppetry: Though Chicken Jenny is onstage for most of Animal Cruelty, she doesn't move all that much, unless she's being chased by another more-menacing-shaped hunk of cardboard on a stick. So most of the credit for Chicken Jenny's liveliness goes to Stephen Hando, one of the four stellar voice actors sitting onstage during Animal Cruelty, reading their lines into microphones like an old-timey radio play. Hando's Chicken Jenny acts like a Southern lady, but she's really a world-weary dame with unmet wants and carnal needs who can't shake her rotten past, no matter how hard she tries.
Noir parodies have been done to death, but when you find a rare noir-fueled comedy that works, it's as delicious and welcome a surprise as finding a $20 bill in a $5 thrift-store jacket. Augustson and Hando's Chicken Jenny makes the perfect central character for a down-and-dirty noir. Animal Cruelty ignores the obvious jokes—no hard-bitten private eyes here, no bad voice-overs—and instead delivers a story about a bunch of shady people (or animals) with questionable motivations bumping into each other in increasingly more desperate situations. Which means it's a noir parody that actually respects and follows the conventions of the genre it's mocking.
When we first meet Chicken Jenny, she's trapped in an abusive relationship with a loser...