Saturday, March 20, 2010

Just Kill Everybody

Bite Theatre’s KILL THE RICH! KILL THE POOR!

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Bite Theatre’s inaugural show is more than a bit of a disappointment. Such is the risk one runs with a play by a new company consisting of three shorts by a new playwright. Bite Theatre’s production of Robert Lawrence’s Kill The Rich! Kill The Poor! is one of the worst things I’ve seen on stage in years. Showing a remarkable amount of potential throughout the production, Bite Theatre itself is not to blame here. Director Joe Foti IV and the ensemble move through the program of three shorts pretty well. That being said, it’s also a bit difficult to blame playwright Robert Lawrence from Cedarburg. The plots that the three shorts are formed from actually sound good. Lawrence is remarkably inept at bringing out their potential, though. Here’s a quick, comprehensive look at Lawrence’s Kill The Rich! Kill The Poor! . . .


TITANIC 2

The Premise: A pregnant woman (Kelly Doherty) is going through labor in what turns out to be a room in an otherwise abandoned warehouse. She is accompanied by an emotionally oblivious husband (Marty McNamee) and a reluctant Doctor (Alex Grindeland) in a lab coat and a clerical collar.

Why It Could’ve Worked: The idea of a pregnant woman being the only coherent and responsible person involved in the birth of her child could’ve been extremely clever and satirical. There’s potential here to make a frighteningly funny statement about the state of healthcare and parenthood. Doherty has a very clear, earthbound stage presence that works in the role. Marty McNamee has a way of carrying himself that works brilliantly with thoughtlessly brutal comic dialogue. Grindeland has really great comic instincts that could work really well even as a defrocked priest inexplicably posing as an obstetrician in a warehouse.

Why It Didn’t Work: Lawrence takes a potentially clever premise and completely fails to deliver. While it’s difficult to completely hate a short that has the courage to end with a cheesy audio gag in the dark, Titanic 2, does a pretty convincing job of failing to entertain on any real level. The deeper social commentary about priests, doctors, health care and such is completely lost on a script that seems kind of desperate to be funny. This would be okay in a way if there was any real discernable humor in the dialogue, but it never really materializes. The ensemble does the best it can with Lawrence’s work, but all they manage to do is make it slightly less unfunny. Of particular note here, Grindeland has a really interesting energy as a disinterested doctor—it’d be interesting to see him in more of a brilliantly twisted Doctor Benway type of role than the stock character he’s playing here. The defrocked preist/pedophile is a bit cliché and never really amounts to much here. 


WAITING FOR PAUL

The Premise: Alex Grindeland plays a man suffering from erectile dysfunction on honeymoon with his attractive, new wife (Lindsey L. Gagliano.) The story opens as the newlyweds are beginning to get intimate for the first time. The newlywed husband must reluctantly explain to his very pure wife, who has abstained from having sex her whole life--waiting for her wedding day. He wants to use an apparatus featuring metal rods to consummate the marriage, but she is determined to get him to respond physically to her in a more visceral way.

Why It Could’ve Worked: There is very real comedy in couples that wait until marriage to have sex. Exploring the comic implications of this in an intimate studio theatre could deliver a very intricate, subtle kind of humor that would be unattainable by any larger production. The possibilities of delivering subtlety in something as blatantly obvious as sex and erectile dysfunction are endless . . .and very unique to the visceral reality of theatre.

Why It Didn’t Work: Lawrence goes for only the most obvious humor with his dialogue. The humor here is mind-numbingly unfunny. Rather than getting into the complexities of human communication inherent in the most intimate possible physical connection between two people, the dialogue never gets beyond surface-level humor. Again, this would be okay if Lawrence executed the surface-level humor with any level of competence. The exchange between newlyweds has kind of a hackneyed sitcom feel to it. One can almost hear the laugh track. As bad as the script was, Waiting For Paul actually ended up being the least intolerable of the three shorts. This had a lot to do with Alex Grindeland’s performance. Grindeland’s comic instincts in this short provide the program with its few truly entertaining moments. He manages to finesse some of the dialogue in a way that breathes some genuine humor into it. If there’s a reason to see this program, it’s the opportunity to see Grindeland’s subtle style tricking the script for this short into giving up some laughs.

 

KRAIGSLIST

The Premise: An infertile couple steals a child from a homeless woman in an effort to fill a void in their lives . . . or something. Marty McNamee plays the husband—a character not entirely unlike the one he played in Titanic 2. Here the characters is a big city politician with rather brutal sexual fetishes. Laura Sedlak plays his wife—a woman addicted to prescription drugs who made herself incapable of having children, evidently due to using a dentist’s drill as a sex toy years ago. Kelly Doherty plays the homeless woman the couple had stolen the child from who comes around to try to get him back. Alex Grindeland plays the title character—the child in question.

Why It Could’ve Worked: The plot touches on a lot of different subjects that are all very topical. The comedy here has could potentially explore the darker side of human interaction in a very surreal way. With characters that are artificial, abstract caricatures of human emotional darkness, a topical comic short like this could real deliver a startlingly memorable theatre experience. 

Why It Didn’t Work: None of the short’s disparate elements are put together well enough to form a coherent statement about anything. Much of what Lawrence was attempting here seemed to be trying to make its point through sheer force of offensiveness. Kraigslist consistently fails to be offensive. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to be offended, but the script was trying too hard. There’s a desperation in the constant barrage of deliberately offensive dialogue that elicits a weird kind of pity for the short. It’s almost impossible to be offended by something one feels pity for. Theoretically, the short could’ve had more comedic impact through exaggerated excessiveness, but Kraigslist never quite gets there either . . . it’s just a vague, forgettable jumble of attempted humor mixed with a conscience grounded in serious societal issues. There’s so much here that could’ve worked had it simply been put into clearer focus.

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Why Lawrence's Work Is Significant: Robert Lawrence has some real potential as a playwright, but it’s brilliantly hidden in Kill The Rich, Kill The Poor! There are some really good ideas here. The characters have a potential to be interesting, but Lawrence doesn’t show any ability to deliver on that potential in any one of these shorts. I absolutely love this kind of humor when it’s done effectively. It’s really, really tricky to get it right, though. It took Parker and Stone years to perfect a similar kind of socially-conscious, brutally grotesque humor on TV with South Park. A few of the show's nearly 200 episodes are absolutely brilliant. Onstage, playwright Jeff Goode does a really good job of developing this kind of humor in his irreverent comedy Poona. (The latest local production of which hits Madison’s Mercury Players Theatre in a couple of months.)  

 

In spite of this show, I'm really looking forward to more from Bite Theatre. Any company with the guts to stage this sort of show prior to late night in a venue as prominent as the Off-Broadway Theatre is worth paying attention to. This is clearly the right kind of energy and Milwaukee needs more of it.


Bite Theatre’s Kill The Rich! Kill The Poor! runs through March 27th at the Off-Broadway Theatre.

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