Thursday, July 31, 2008

UndergroundZero Festival: "The Proposal" and "The Apocalypse of John, the Rabbit Known as Chicken Little"

Just before their second annual festival began, Collective:Unconscious had to abandon their former theater due to flooding. In many ways, that's appropriate, because so far as curators go, Paul Bargetto is a man who likes to get his feet wet: how else to explain the most eclectic lineup of shows on any festival stage this year? From a revival of the re-relevant dramatization of black box recordings (Charlie Victor Romeo) to Brechtian lounge acts (The Terrible Temptation To Do Good), burlesques (Pinchbottom Declares War!), and clown poetry (Clown Axioms & The Bitter Poet), the UndergroundZero festival defies easy categorization.

For example, Seth Powers's disturbing The Proposal begins with a simple revival of the short Chekhovian farce of the same name. But the actor/director (Daniel Irizarry) isn't quite sure the message is getting across, and doesn't know how to simultaneously reach the older theatergoers looking to relive the peaceful past of passive theater and the younger iPod generation. The question he poses is a bloody difficult one--"Why can't theater be art?"--and it's made all the bloodier by the violence of good doctor Chekhov (Laura Butler) and the well-intentioned puerility of a thick-bearded, cookie-laden Nietzsche (Vic Peterson). Actor's search for truth twists into a dark farce, from an animalistic portrayal of the creation myth to a Gallagher-like climax, with a few breaks to dance the mazurka. Under normal conditions, such dangerous leaps in illogic would simply be dismissed as pretension, but Irizarry wrestles Powers's script to the floor by grounding everything in the intensely physical, and it's near impossible to look away.*

Taking another approach, the modest Freddi Price's The Apocalypse of John, the Rabbit Known As Chicken Little does for shadow puppets what South Park did for cutouts: literally and figuratively crude, his show takes an absurd Terry Gilliam-like glee in blatantly satirizing the book of Revelation. That John has been replaced with a masturbating, alcoholic rabbit who believes the sky is falling is already plenty silly, but he soon encounters "Henny Penny" ("That's the lamb of god, bitch!") and "Goosey Loosey" (the whore of Babylon), and it's only a matter of time before the scrim is overrun with demons, from a dancing, googly-eyed 666 to a snooty Frenchman drunk on absinthe ("Wormwood"). More is more, but the exaggeration of such wild contradictions is hysterical: "How many thirds can you divide the world into?" As a means of moderation, Price also performed his two-person bunraku, Frank, which while just as heavy-handed in the murmuring voiceover, was a valuable reminder of the power of silence, and the transitory power of theater.

Of course, theater doesn't have to be art, it can be recklessly entertaining instead. But to really get shaken up, it's important to venture off that beaten (to death) track, and no better place to jump off the deep end than with UndergroundZero.

[*Note: To clarify a point, when a script tackles complex ideas in a nontraditional way, the casual theatergoer is quick to label it as "pretentious." If I were to have simply read Seth's script , I might have done the same. But this is why theater works best as a collaborative effort: I very much enjoyed The Proposal, and it illustrates the positive ways in which even pretension itself can be used to enrich the very valid critiques being made about art.]

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