Sunday, June 22, 2014

Death by Powerpoint (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Death by Powerpoint is a premier in the 2014 Hollywood Fringe. According to the program this marks writer James F. Robinson's first play. It has a cast of four, two men and two women, and an inherently interesting as well as theatrical premise.

Before I go any further let me say the show is very fun. I enjoyed myself. Laughed out loud many times. So did my guest, who's been going to even more theater than I have this month! Here's what the press release says:

TED Talks-style “Thought-Leaders” will attempt to destroy your precious Cherished Beliefs by making life-changing presentations as they compete for Money, Glory & PowerPoint immortality in DEATH BY POWERPOINT, a World Premiere at the 2014 Hollywood Fringe. “Presentation Culture” hits the stage in this comic and slightly existential attack on beliefs that 21st century moderns may hold dear.

Essential the idea of the play lies in the conceit of we the audience attending the 23rd Annual National Global Influencers Finals.  Each of the finalists has twelve minutes to destroy a deeply cherished belief held by the audience. What these four beliefs are, how they are wrong and what we should do about it forms just part of the entertainment. All four presenters come across as well as real people, whose own issues end up leaking onto stage.

All well and good!

First up is Lucy (Scarlett Bermingham), she of the fierce smile who honestly seems the most likable of the four. Or least the one who seems most on your side. Maybe. Because she also seems the most straightforward and successful liar. She seeks with statistics and (eventually) a very personal story to demolish the cherished notion "You're Not Good Enough." If that sounds like a lot she managed to convey in twelve minutes, pat yourself on the back.

Second is Mark (Eric Pierce when I saw it) who has in many ways the best punchline. Despite the warning at the top of this review I don't want to spoil it, even though both I and my guest saw it coming. Didn't take one particle away of entertainment foreseeing what would happen. Setting up that punchline was no small feat. In fact, let me emphasize here the cast throughout prove themselves excellent!

Joan (Emily Thomas when I saw it) was the finalist I felt we get to know the most. She's also the one who, as written, never admits to nor is caught at telling a lie. Which doesn't mean she isn't lying. But I suspect she is not. That is meant as a compliment to both actor and writer.

Finally we get Matthew (Michael Riffle) a previous winner and therefore at least in theory the epitome of what the other three aim for. And as such the center of the play's climax, about the effort to win and any insights the playwright may have on that issue. Riffle, like the rest, plays his part with flare and with specificity much deserving of praise.

Let me repeat. This play is interesting. And very entertaining. I'll go a step further and dub it thought-provoking.

Having said all that, let me also note it doesn't quite work at what it seems to be trying to do. Specifically I would point out three flaws that leads to a dramatic pulling of a punch that lands, but lacks as much force as the writer seems to desire. One may not have a solution, at least not easily. Quite simply, we never quite care enough about the characters and their interplay. In order to do so, frankly we'd need a longer play. Failing that, perhaps something that would intrude onto each of their presentations, a personal threatening to interfere with the professional. Except all that is already present! So maybe we just have to accept this limitation and go forward. Cast some first rate talent (as this production did) and simply do the script! But the script has a couple of points where the 'reality' of the Powerpoint presentation breaks. Twice we get some kind of background details in the form of a flashback. Neither time do we get much from these moments, not dramatically. What, did Lucy and Matthew have a thing at some point? Maybe. Frankly Bermingham conveyed that far more in a delightfully mysterious reaction she had to a story he began to tell. The flashback that went forward soon after seemed to serve no real function at all. The story it conveyed, great! But the flashback...didn't work. Matthew himself might easily have done all that, but he should have done the other voice himself rather than 'break' the flow of the performance.

Finally--and again I don't want to give too many spoilers away--let me say the ending of this show demanded much more time before a curtain call. The characters should have left the space in character (all save one) and then given the audience at least several seconds alone with might call the debris of the climax.

Still, it is fun. It is well-acted. It entertains and provokes some genuine thought. Which puts it head and above most theatre, film and television out there!

Death by Powerpoint plays June 22nd at 7:00pm ($12), June 26th at 10:30pm (Pay What You Can), June 27th at 10:00pm ($12), June 28th at 11:30pm ($12), and June 29th at 4:00pm ($12) at The Actors Company’s Let Live Theater, 916 N. Formosa Ave.West Hollywood, CA 90046

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