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Photograph by BJ Murphy
CLOWNING AROUND: Our nation's many red-nosed notions get a workout in 'Americana Absurdum.'

Six Feet Over the Top

Renegade Theatre Experiment's 'Americana Absurdum' mashes up mortuaries and wolverines

By Marianne Messina

IN Renegade Theatre Experiment's premiere West Coast presentation of the Brian Parks play Americana Absurdum, every scene skates on the edge of coherence. Ultimately, the experience is like the church dream reported by Kea (Violet Ash), the mortician's glum goth daughter: you're looking up at colorful stained-glass windows; they shatter and rain down in splintered fragments and turn into a thick, entrapping goo oozing through the pews. For all the play's nonsense, each of its two episodes has an overarching, even compelling story.

In Act 1's "Vomit and Roses"—a kind of Six Feet Under meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer complete with prom mash-up season finale—will the nice mortuary family keep the nasty megamortuary from taking over its family firm? And in Act 2's "Wolverine's Dream," will the trashy daughters of the departed—Spoon (Molly Gazay) and Mashie Balata (Christine Schisano)—sue the syntax off the plagiarist poetaster and airline company owner Wallace Stevens (Charlie Shoemaker)?

Literati, cult fans and TV addicts will be able to spot the stolen plots, poems and ad tag lines—incidentally, Anglocana as well as Americana. The humor is thick-packed and absurd, along the lines of this father/son (Charlie Shoemaker/Jack Starr) discussion in "Vomit and Roses": "Clearly, it's a torture device," says the father. "Some people think it's a religious symbol," says the son—discussing a crucifix. The name "Renegade" suggests humor of a certain stamp—are dead baby jokes in or out this year? Let that be your yardstick.

Even so, this intricate production can overrule your better judgment—take for example Starr's progressively more frenzied narration synced to "Stairway to Heaven." And there's something endearing about the way soft music wells up (Derek Batoyon is back at the sound board) when the family talks about Mom, so content in her little "paradise" (by which they mean mortuary), and next we see Mom in frilly, white, blood-spattered apron, body parts in hand—"Look, honey, it's a colon."

The urban skyline of Hansel Brimlay's scenic design is about as nonsensical as any riff in the play itself, except that it suggests urban America in particular. However, the solid, colorless geometry of these black-and-white skyscrapers serves an aesthetic pragmatism. It anchors and foregrounds all the chaotic color—orange-haired clowns (Starr and Matthew Sameck), shimmering silver blouses on the bleach blonde litigious sisters and their red-filled martini glasses that could as easily be held upside-down.

Characters speak in florid narration and language that harkens back to the Beat Generation. And the capable cast squeezes enough humanity from the absurdity to make the production extremely engaging. Violet Ash is a charm as Patty O'Mayo, the two tarts' Irish lawyer with the leprechaun assistants. Michael Jerome West is captivating as the crash pilot. Peering through his glasses, looking bewildered over the cockpit he says, "That explains all those dials." Blythe Murphy goes from happy vivisectionist housewife to smeared lipstick and morphine addiction with equal precision. As airline owner Wallace Stevens, Shoemaker plays every nuance of the pilfering poet and callous businessman just right. Letting Wallace's crooked lawyer Ermine Miami (West) unify this collage of Americana as the one character carried through both episodes, Parks holds the double-edged swords of American greatness—opportunism, pragmatism, capitalism—up for inspection.

Behind all the mortuary humor, Parks does have more somber things to say of Americana. The mortuary mother who'd much rather chill in her human chop shop than shop at the supermall says, "Malls are all about denying that anything dies. That wouldn't be in my best interests." But Parks sprinkles it on lightly, and director Nichole Y. Hamilton lets crafted medium be the message.

AMERICANA ABSURDUM, a Renegade Theater Experiment production, plays Thursday–Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through Sept. 22 at the Historic Hoover Theatre, 1635 Park Ave., San Jose. Tickets are $13–$20. (408.351.4400)

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