Here we are, smack in the middle of PHX:fringe, with just three days to go. So many shows; such a plethora of choices! Curtains wishes Big Blue or Watson could have plotted out what showed promise, what coincided with Curtains' uncommitted time, what allowed time to write about it for you guys, and which of the performances thus selected didn't take place simultaneously. Alas, a mere human brain or three determined what we've been able to cover this week.
Happily, we were able to catch the première of Big Brain finalist Kim Porter's In the Wake of the Bounty by William "Liferaft" Lament, two short one-acts about shipwreck survivors. Playwrights like Porter, who've worked hard to incorporate both freedom and discipline into their process, will cheerfully employ plot and setting to paint their characters into seemingly impossibly wee corners and then bash them back out with true-to-life absurdity. And former New Times contributor (and so much more) Robert X. Planet plays the accordion in the show, too.
The title of the show is actually the title of the second play, which was written by Porter and not by Lament, who is a character in it. (Whew!) The first mini-play on the program, Drifting, takes the common combo of uncool mom and angry teenage daughter to the unforgiving open sea. Larissa Brewington and Constance Olivia Beckford are convincing and funny as a pair who, faced with recent trauma and imminent destruction, will still argue about authority, work ethic, and independence, while admiring each other's hair and demanding useless validation, at all costs.
Bounty , directed by ASU's Pam Sterling, takes everything up a notch. The virtuoso Greg Lutz is a grizzled, sunbaked survivor whose backstory and motivations are gradually unraveled by a blissful, guileless dude played with hefty bonhomie by Shawn Robinson. Subtly hysterical (which means that, though I don't claim to be unusually perceptive, I laughed my ass off), the dialogue ebbs and flows like the tide, and Lutz's charming physical depiction of bobbing and paddling frames the vicissitudes of fame and the perfect storm of jealousy and loss.
I love love love the set, too. Simple, vertically graduated panels of different blue fabrics make the depiction of the water's surface possible without being too distracting. It's a sort of crafted world with a simultaneous security and mystery to it.
AND NOW, THE PLAY CURTAINS FEARED MOST . . .
When I say that the chairs on the set are the best thing about Oppressed: A Proclamation of a Maltreated Male, you shouldn't take that as a sign that it's a bad production or a bad play. It could be another Angels in America and still not quite live up to these kick-ass chairs, decorated by Duck brand duct tape's Stuck at Prom scholarship winner Ray Banna, who is also a member of the cast. Seriously, they are gorgeous, trippy, colorful, and fun, and someone should auction them off to fund a theater company.
Or maybe to buy a ticket out of town for Van Rockwell, who "devised" this play. Because it is, in fact, very bad indeed. When the promotional blurb describes something as a neglected male perspective chronicling a man's journey through rejection from victimizer to victim, claiming that it's a seldom-acknowledged, rarely expressed point of view, my Nice Guy alarm goes off big time.
I brought so much benefit of the doubt, along with conveniently dormant ovaries, to this performance. Maybe it will be tongue-in-cheek, acknowledging its own self-sabotaging, hypocritical bullshit, I thought. Maybe it won't even be self-sabotaging, hypocritical bullshit; perhaps it will be intelligent and humble about the whole issue and we'll all learn a lot. Maybe a lady once beat the crap out of this guy -- hey, it happens.
Worst-case scenario, I assumed, would be a production that's so bad it's fascinating, maybe even amusing. None of those possibilities played out. Not a one.
If the play and its concept weren't described as clearly as they are in its accompanying materials, I might not be able to criticize Oppressed with any specificity. But I'm indebted to exCellenT Cake Theatre's well-designed, slick program, posters, and postcards, along with the Fringe Web site, for helping me see some of exactly what isn't working here.
First, it's bitter, humorless, and petty. If only that were all -- plenty of good drama is bitter, humorless, and petty -- but there's more. The characters on stage are individuals with their own stories, but we're also told they represent different aspects of the main character's persona, or stages in his miserable evolution, or something. We have to be told, because there's no clue they're anything other than a bunch of guys. (Wearing a jumpsuit and a name tag doesn't make you a mechanic.)
The action is outlined, and the outline is in the program. It's meaningless gibberish (as if Rebecca Black had recited the days of the week in the wrong order and also named them Banana, Shoe, Thunderstorm, and Puppy) with a few pop-psych buzzwords thrown in, and the dialogue is only slightly less random and incoherent.
The actors seem nice and work hard. They are young and somewhat inexperienced, and their director (also Rockwell) didn't take a firm hand with them -- to get them to speak more slowly, to relax, to develop characters.
Were we all still 22 years old or so and suffering early heartbreak, we might find the show comforting in the short term. I give Rockwell big points, actually, for not appearing to try to extend the significance of his conclusions beyond that unenviable stage of life. Women that age are almost as immature as men -- yes, it's infuriating and hurtful. And when that rug of romantic ideals has been yanked from under you, everything changes. And if you're in a theatrical environment, it makes you want to write a play.
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This is what we buy into, though, when we embrace a fringe festival. It's the nature of the beast. There will be bad shows by young people from nearby schools who don't face prohibitive travel expenses. (And, for that matter, bad shows by postmenopausal solo performance artists who cashed in their 401(k)s and came out from Wisconsin.)
It's still an awesome opportunity for them to be in charge of something and find out what that means -- and I wound up seeing the show that was on the very bottom of my list without throwing a fit or walking out. Again, if you're a loser who thinks you're alone because you aren't rich, handsome, or an asshole, you might like Oppressed; you might like it a lot. It will not change your life, however. Not even a tiny bit. It might even delay your eventual reality check.
In the Wake of the Bounty by William "Liferaft" Lament and Oppressed: A Proclamation of a Maltreated Male continue through Sunday, April 10, at the Little Theatre at Phoenix Theatre, 100 East McDowell Road. You may buy tickets, $10 each, at the door (in the Little Theatre's lobby, not at the main box office), call 602-476-1066, or click here for Oppressed and here for Bounty, up to 24 hours before the show.