Thursday, June 13, 2013

"Republic County" (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Attending the premier at Zombie Joe's, I was unfamiliar with Joe Musso's Republic County. Had read the press release about a government office trying to deal with a bunch of poets who'd recently made their abode in the locality--said poets including Emily Dickenson, Henry David Thoreau and Edgar Allan Poe (complete with stuffed dead raven on his shoulder).

What I discovered was a play very much in the vein of Christopher Durang, author of such wild bits of heretical fancy as Sister Mary Ignatious Explains It All To You. Really interesting, entertaining and surreal stuff--a reality existing just between this one and dreams, as if the universe itself had taken just a tiny chip of acid. And we see it kick in.

So government forces operate with fervent self-interest amid a world of regulations but no ethics, rules instead of morals, ambition in place of humanity. Likewise the world outside the bureaucracy shows itself exactly as absurd, as narrow-minded, as ridiculous as we sometimes fear it really is.

All well and good. Not to everyone's taste, but this is Zombie Joe's! They don't do The Odd Couple or South Pacific! Zombie Joe does Urban Death, does Shakespeare and edgy stuff like Notes From Underground! Their comedies are dark and twisted--just the way their audience likes'em! Myself included!

So why didn't I laugh very much that night?

photo credit: Roger K. Weiss
Keep in mind the script itself came across as very clever. Several of the cast I've seen before, doing good work. A few I didn't recognize but still showed talent. The director has done nice things before.

The question arises again, then--why didn't I laugh very much?

Pontification time. Just a friendly warning.

Comedy, said a great comedian/actor, is hard. According to the story, he said that on his deathbed. Specifically he said Death is hard, but not as hard as Comedy. So the story goes. Whether that tale happened or not, I agree with the sentiment. Comedy requires a lot of precision to actually work, and the more stylized the more precise it needs to become. Hence the constant harping by comedians on timing. I once watched an entire documentary that sought to explain why (in part) people these days admire Charlie Chaplin's films so much, but hardly ever laugh at them anymore. By its nature, comedy creates a new world. To be sure, all theatre does that but with comedy the new world differs from our own rather differently
photo credit: Roger K. Weiss
than does (for example) opera.

Republic County seems to me to require a very specific tone and approach, one difficult to describe but with equal parts total reality and utter farce--but farce taken with complete seriousness, as far as the participants are serious about anything. Very much like Durang. And I might as well admit to NEVER having seen a successful production of even one of Durang's plays. Not saying it cannot be done. Not at all! But, like Republic County, the tone and style needs to be a bullseye to work completely.

"Not hitting a bullseye" would usually be pretty minor criticism from yours truly. But some other problems got in the way. And they accumulated.

Remember, I'm pontificating. Still. With very few exceptions (and honestly, other than monologues, I cannot think of any off hand) theatre consists of interaction. Good theatre, anyway. More than one member of the cast seemed to be doing a monologue most of the time--even when (in theory) they were having a conversation with someone else. Part of this lies in what is perhaps a problem of geometry. Zombie Joe's audience is L-shaped, with the understandable result that actors tend to aim themselves at the point of the L, so the maximum number of audience members can see them.  This is a trap. A trap actors need to avoid, and generally have at ZJU. Other times they've taken that quirk of design and used it to great effect (most obviously in Love Me Deadly, created as a old time radio broadcast). That production took the trap and turned it into a stylistic device. Alas, the same cannot be said for Republic County.  What I saw in some actors was a resolute speaking to the audience to the point of ignoring their cast-mates. In other words, they fell into the trap--all the way down. Put another way--they forgot about the Fourth Wall. Some plays don't have one (all of Shakespeare for example). Other most certainly do (Chekhov, Williams, etc.). This is one of those special ones that has a fourth wall that then tears it down! But since we never experienced the fourth wall, the ending lost all its punch.

Frankly, I also wanted to give voice lessons to a couple of members of the cast who mistake volume for projection. Nobody wants to hear them yelling their lines. It remains just very, very poor technique. Honestly, were this a music performance it would be the equivalent of not tuning your guitar beforehand. It is almost as bad for an actor as forgetting one's lines. That is literally how dead serious I take this--projecting your voice is a basic theatrical skill. Not yelling. Not shouting.

This only applies to some members of the cast. Not all. Not a majority. But some.

And the young lady portraying Emily Dickensen did a fine job overall--quite probably because she had no lines (this is nearly always an opportunity to either shine or evaporate as an actor). Almost everyone had some nice moments. Really, even the ones I'm complaining about. Weirdly enough, I quite enjoyed the running gag about the rug (and wish more had been made of it). And the script itself remains very clever, very subversive. Easy to see its attraction!

Which isn't to say you cannot enjoy the show, despite what I see as flaws. Nor that some don't give quite good performances. You can and some do. After all, your mileage may vary. And it isn't as if someone decided to make me infallible. But I do stand by my words.

Republic County plays Saturday nights at 8:30pm through July 6, 2013 at Zombie Joe's, 4850 Lankershim Blvd, North Hollywood (north of Camarillo).

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