2006+03_artspumpkinpieshow.jpgReading both of Clay McLeod Chapman’s novels and seeing the Pumpkin Pie Show within a single week made for some very strange dreams. But when I saw that the novelist and storyteller was bringing the Pumpkin Pie Show in its current incarnation, Junta High, to the stage, I couldn’t resist combining the experience of reading his words and seeing his words performed all at the same time, to compare the two and see the connection between how his imagination pours out on paper and onto the stage. Would I find disparity between the two? Which would outshine the other, and why? It seemed like a fascinating experiment.

I’d read both books, Rest Area and Miss Corpus, before attending the show. Rest Area is a collection of short stories that are both disturbing and startlingly funny. The consistency of form – the most successful stories are told straight to the reader as in a twisted confessional booth – works in Chapman’s favor, threading the disparate stories together like a charm bracelet of freakishness. It felt like, perhaps, the cannibalistic Boy Scout and the sacrificial rodeo clown might be trading war stories over soggy home fries at a roadside diner. Some of the stories abused the O. Henry-esque grand reveal tactic, driving home too much the freakishness of its characters. It happened rarely, but it ran contrary to Chapman’s unique talent of treating all his oddities like the most normal people in the world, taunting his readers to see themselves in each character. It’s a style he carries exceedingly well, and I found it at the root of his most successful stories, on stage and off.

Miss Corpus builds well on the same style; even though it’s a novel, the narrative jumps back and forth between two men both carrying the remains of a loved one in the car, careening madly towards each other on the South’s spine – I-95. The book starts, and progresses, much stronger than it finishes, and I wanted to see a more even-handed treatment of our two protagonists. Chapman interspersed their narratives with the Rest-Area-style short story, a speeding glimpse into a roadside oddity along the way in his queer South. Some worked better than others, but overall, they played to his strength.

And that’s what brings us to the show itself. I’ve seen earlier incarnations of Pumpkin Pie Show. The genre is difficult to describe – it’s not a play, and it’s not a reading. It’s simply Chapman’s mind, set to actors and music. His stories are read as monologues by talented actors, dressed and moving like their oddball characters, the short story thrust under the harsh spotlight of stage. Junta High (tonight’s the last show at P.S. 122) is different from earlier versions of PPS that I’ve seen. The pace is more frenetic, Chapman’s dissonant satirical edge sharper when applied to the fleshy victim that is the High School Experience. His cheerleaders are brutal, swapping the slang-ridden tones of gossipy chatter for the cruel, edgy talk of warriors. The marching band expertly backing each story felt more like drunken controlled chaos than the marching bands of my youth. Laced throughout every childish moment was anger, vitriol, and snark. On the whole, it was brilliant.

I found myself, as I watched, comparing the experience of reading to the storytelling happening here. To be sure, the manic directness of Chapman’s style benefits from being dramatized. As the mastermind, too, he selected his actors well – in fact, Chapman himself stepping up to read his own story was one of the weaker performances, compared to the crisp bitchiness of his cheerleaders or the desperate fear of a kidnapped guidance counselor (acted marvelously by Paul Thureen). There were two elements at play, I realized. One was the literary: how well did Chapman’s fiendishly weird stories come to the stage? How did his big reveals and violent twists translate? But there was also the performance itself, and it only made his work better. The storytelling either enhanced what was brilliant about his writing or highlighted its flaws. If the message was too forced, that came out, got thrown harshly into the audience. But when the subtle weirdness of the story was well-written, it wrapped you up in its thorny embrace and really worked.

Which, really, is at the heart of Chapman’s style. It’s difficult to pick a métier where his work is stronger. You don’t really have to. To read his stories on the page and then to see the stories acted on the stage of Pumpkin Pie Show is to see them all grown-up and ready to seriously freak you out.