Sunday, April 10, 2011

THEATER: The Tremendous Tremendous

Coming toward the end of the Great Depression, the 1939 World's Fair was designed to be a tremendous exhibition, one that would celebrate and unite the many different peoples of the world. To this effect, one of the highlights was the Westinghouse Time Capsule (though most of us will have to take Wikipedia's word for that), which captured that singular moment in time. While it's true that the capsule isn't due to be unearthed until the year 6939, that hasn't stopped the Mad Ones from painstakingly recreating one such moment -- the eighty celebratory, real-time minutes following the final performance of the Tremendous Traveling Abbots. What follows -- The Tremendous Tremendous -- doesn't wear itself out or sell itself short. Like their previous work, Samuel & Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War, the company uses a timeless setting to focus on the minutiae that keep us living and thriving together.

The play opens with a reversal of the usual theatrical norms: the five-member cast is returning from their final performance, a Shakespearean tragedy (done as a comedic vaudeville act), and between triumphant shots of liquor, they go to the sad task of taking off their fake breasts, unstrapping their blood packets, and washing the greasepaint from their faces. What was the Abbotts' finest hour -- the New York Times gave them an energetic five stars -- may have passed, and the future is terrifying. (They're divided over what their next gig should be.) This, in turn, is a second reversal on our expectations: rather than move on, the group attempts to live in the glorious past, the result of which is a gripping and emotional yet largely plot-less play. (Nothing wrong with that, especially if you're a fan of character-focused playwrights like Annie Baker, and particularly impressive, considering that the play was written by the ensemble.)

Of course, nothing is that simple: the future isn't simply the bright and shiny thing the World's Fair promises it will be, nor is the past this grand Golden Age to swoon over. Squid (Michael Dalto), the group's swarthy musician, has only recently joined the group, and the company does their best to avoid mentioning Murray, the fallen legend he replaced. For all their smiles, his death is a matter of contention between the tomboy Lucilla (Stephanie Wright Thompson) and the wry Bald Henry (Marc Bovino), to say nothing of the deeper sorrow this summons up in the serious Charlie (Joe Curnutte), an emotion that their bubbling leader, Tall Henry (Henry Vick, new to the company, though you'd never be able to tell), does his best to soothe. But such specifics are hardly the point; the subtext exists merely to convince us of the deep bonds and history that ties the group (which isn't really related) together: watch the way they rib one another about their barroom flirting, unite to make up stories on the fly (a preposterous explanation of how Charlie lost his leg), and sweetly share gifts with one another. They're so loose, so utterly convincing, that you'll feel like a time-traveling party-crashing voyeur (particularly in the intimate space).

In fact, everything about The Tremendous Tremendous feels authentic, from the type of popcorn they throw into one another's mouths to Sydney Gallas's brilliant costuming; from the silent projection of the World's Fair they marvel over together to the lights studding their dressing-room mirror. Though the Mad Ones bring this aesthetic with them (they're credited as producers and set designers), they're aided by Jeffrey Withers, who, being primarily an actor, is the right sort of director for a piece this loose and character-driven. That is, though the plot drifts -- it's not unusual for two distinct conversations to take place at once -- there isn't a single moment that feels unnecessary, and that applies to the ending, which takes a turn that, while unexpected to we on the outside, seems inevitable to the Abbotts.

So forget the sealed capsule, forget the lifeless exhibits: The Tremendous Tremendous is the thing worth remembering, a testament not only to a time and a people, but to the idea that we can be better than this, and for as long as we choose to make that moment last.

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