The enormous pleasure of American Safari begins even before the curtain rings up on this nostalgic pseudo-comedy. As playgoers settle into their seats at the Herberger Theater Center's Stage West, a picnic table sails dreamily around the stage, attended by a smiling couple who silently toast one another with Kool-Aid and smack at imaginary mosquitoes. The 90-odd minutes that follow comprise the most entertaining and innovative traveling show to visit the Valley in recent years.
Presented by the Minneapolis-based Margolis Brown Theater Company, American Safari is the latest show by the troupe's founders, "physical theater" artists Kari Margolis and Tony Brown. The couple, a professional and romantic team for a quarter-century, founded the company in 1983. Their performance pieces employ something called "the Margolis Method," an amalgam of actorly disciplines inspired by, among others, Bertolt Brecht.
But Brown's performance more clearly recalls the rubber-limbed clowning of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton and the facile facial expressions of the young Charlie Chaplin. Silent films are further evoked by the program's emphasis on images over dialogue, an element meant to display Brown's considerable physical dexterity and talent for (dare I say it?) mime. He's blown about by a phalanx of industrial fans, wrestles with a pile of suitcases as he battles his way through an airport, and dances with a coquettish (and armless) mannequin.
These loosely connected scenes deliver a comical indictment of both our current techno-crazed, overachieving American values and of the recent past, when backyard picnics and a fascination with nuclear war and theme parks were routine. Brown plays everyman Arthur Peterson, whose world is a slightly sillier version of our own. In the first half of the show, Arthur is inundated with credit card telesales and overcome by the monotony of the workplace. Later, he strikes out on a cross-country road trip in a miniature '57 Chevy convertible, where he encounters a nostalgic panorama of the American psyche.
As directed by Margolis, Brown's largely solo performance is enhanced by original music, rear-projected images, fiddly choreography, and a staggering stack of sound and light tricks. The show's visual and aural apex comes with a spoof of Disneyland, itself the ultimate parody of cheesy Americana. In a Tomorrowland exhibit, our animatronic host delivers a lecture on atomic warfare and the joys of stereophonic sound. Brown's dead-on robotics and Paul A. Black's stunning light cues (American Safari represents Black's best work in a long, impressive local career) create a seamless illusion of exaggerated "humanity."
Such visual trickery abounds. Brown peeks at his reflection in a bathroom mirror, then exits, leaving his reflection behind to shout goofy affirmations at the audience. Such talking heads appear throughout (most memorably in the lid of a backyard hibachi) to deliver aphorisms that at once recall the optimism of post-World War II America and the Orwellian horrors of a techno-savvy 21st century.
Producing artistic director Matthew Wiener should be lauded for slotting this curious show, which pushes the proverbial cutting-edge envelope with Actors Theatre of Phoenix subscribers. In fact, ATP's entire season is made up of risky material; other than its perennial A Christmas Carol, there are no "name" shows scheduled. Perhaps in an attempt to soft-peddle the show, ATP's press materials describe American Safari as "hilarious" and "amusing," but there's more here than just yuks. The program's message about "the psyche of the American backyard" is more solemn than silly, and plays louder than the laughs Brown received on opening night.
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