Escaping Planet Earth

The pair who nurtured experimental theater will leave Phoenix on a high note, with Haunted Summer

The musty old warehouse at Second Street and Roosevelt is better known for its garish mural than for what goes on inside. After five spotty seasons, Planet Earth Multi-Cultural Theatre is still looking for its audience, even while its founders--Peter Cirino and his wife, actress Mollie Kellogg Cirino--are preparing to quit Phoenix in favor of Seattle.

The theater will continue under a new director (reportedly local playwright/actor Christopher Haines), but it's doubtful the revised company will produce the same out-there fare this tiny company has become known for.

Depending on whom you ask, that could be bad news for theatergoers and for the stream of actors who've cut their teeth at Planet Earth the past few years. The company's stock in trade has been shows by first-time playwrights featuring untested actors.

"We've created a place for theater that's outside the mainstream," Peter Cirino says, "and we've given new actors a place to start. But mostly people don't seem to care."

Whether anyone notices the Cirinos' departure, their timing is ironic: The company has just scored one of its biggest financial successes, and its current production, an original piece called Haunted Summer, is the best thing Planet Earth has produced in years.

They're in it for the art, the Cirinos claim, and they've weathered months-long slumps, performed to nearly empty houses and have operated with the help of volunteers since their board of directors walked out soon after they opened in 1992.

In Seattle, the Cirinos plan to open Planet Earth Seattle, and they hope to find a hipper, more theater-savvy core audience.

"I'm not giving up on Phoenix," Cirino says. "But how long can you yell at a brick wall? We've done what we can with the theater audience here. It takes a year to accomplish in Phoenix what you can do in a week in a real theater-oriented city."

Despite such harsh criticism, the Cirinos insist that they're not going away mad--they're just going away. They hate schmoozing, they say, and the theater community here is too cliquish.

"We don't want to have to make sure we go to the right barbecue to get cast in someone's show," Cirino says of his and his wife's failure to be cast in other Valley theaters' productions.

The Cirinos are known as "those people from that weird theater over on Roosevelt," they report, mostly because of the material they select, but also because they cast without regard to gender, age or ethnicity. This, Cirino says, is a practice born as much of necessity as open-mindedness.

"Sometimes we're casting a five-character show, and only five people show up for the auditions," Cirino says. "And one of them is Mollie. What am I supposed to do?"

This offbeat casting and the company's unusual translations of time-worn classics occasionally result in fascinating theater. Its contemporary take on The Tempest was a dazzling, multimedia circus that garnered strong reviews.

And the liberties Cirino took with Waiting for Godot two seasons ago resulted in an entertaining, accessible version of Beckett's most unapproachable play. It featured the most memorable entrance of the season: Haines, pinned center stage beneath an enormous pile of rocks during the play's first 15 minutes, burst through this rubble before uttering his first lines.

Many of the same eccentricities mark Haunted Summer, the company's current offering. The show benefits from the presence of a pair of seasoned actors: Kellogg Cirino and Haines, the theater's heir apparent, are featured members of the ensemble cast that also includes PET stalwart Sean Robbins in the most striking performance he's given for the company.

The story is a fictional account of a meeting between English poets Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, and seems to be based loosely on the summer of 1816, when Shelley and Byron first met while vacationing in Geneva with Shelley's wife, Mary, and her stepsister, Claire Clairmont. These four are joined by Byron's physician, Dr. John Polidori, and all agree to a contest in which they write about what frightens them.

They ingest laudanum--a tincture of opium--and spend their evenings reliving past traumas or hallucinating big, flashy nightmares. (Few historical texts mention the writers' drug use, though the contest itself--which was probably only a challenge from Byron to Mary Shelley--is widely reported as the inspiration for her Frankenstein.)

The creation of Haunted Summer is almost more interesting than the production itself: The original script was fashioned by directors Cirino and Haines from improvisations by the cast and crew. Cirino cast the show several months ago, and each actor was charged with researching the writer he or she would portray. In rehearsal the actors improvised dialogue while the directors took notes or videotaped key scenes. This raw material became the working script, which is embellished during each performance with further improvisations.

The longish scene where the poets take laudanum for the first time is a fascinating exercise in Suzuki improv methods, where a cue sets off a series of random actions that lead to the same conclusion.

Improvisational theater can meander and, at just under three hours, this play does take too long to get where it's going. But the loose interactions and casual dialogue enhance a story whose ending any former English-lit student already knows.

The flashpoint of the script is its three apocryphal stories by Byron, Percy Shelley and Clairmont. (According to legend, Clairmont's story was abandoned when she discovered that she was pregnant by Byron; Percy Shelley's and Byron's stories were reportedly burned; only Frankenstein and Polidori's Vampyr survived.) Here, the playwrights have invented stories based on chapters from the writers' lives that are not only wildly entertaining in a creepy, Grand Guignol sort of way, but also seem to fit these famous characters.

Despite its length and occasional excesses (everyone gets naked, and there's much gratuitous humping--of furniture, props and other actors--by each of the principals), Haunted Summer is the most entertaining production Planet Earth has presented in several seasons.

While its seasons are as spotty today as they were when the troupe debuted five years ago, it's hard to imagine any other local company writing and producing a show about famous writers who take drugs and have sex for three hours.

Let's hope the Cirinos' successor(s) will have the same chutzpah as those people from that weird theater over on Roosevelt.

Haunted Summer continues through Saturday, March 22, at Planet Earth Multi-Cultural Theatre, 909 North Third Street. For more details, see Theater listing in Thrills.

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