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Middle Rage

[whitespace] Curchack's 'Surprise Party' a suicide note to the wonder years

By Daedalus Howell

IF EVER A WIZ there was, Fred Curchack is one because, because, because, because, because, because--because of all the wonderful things he does. Petaluma's Cinnabar Theater is host to playwright/performer Curchack's latest foray into solo theater--A Surprise Party--in equal parts a black comedy for graying baby boomers, a one-act suicide note, and testimony that introspection assists the licking of mortal wounds.

An adroit hybridization of live performance and video projection, A Surprise Party hinges on an emotionally defeated man intending to voluntarily lie down for the dirt-nap on his 50th birthday. Yes, it is reminiscent of Swiss-born Hermann Hesse's quasi-autobiographical tome to archetypal psychology, Steppenwolf.

In Hesse's novel, Harry Haller (the scantily camouflaged author) achieves spiritual gestalt after a Jungian-doused venture into his unconscious--symbolized by the Magic Theater, a psychic cabaret of projections, deflections, and divertissements.

Correspondingly, in Curchack's work, Theo Shmaltzsky (a writer/performer and paper-thin simulacrum of the similarly employed and aged Curchack) is also going to off himself at the half-century mark, but Shmaltzsky's Magic Theater is not simply a metaphor--you actually pay to sit there, in the dark, in Petaluma. With remarkable poise and humor, Curchack has forged an erudite and tumultuous production that ponders the interrelation of art and artist, the fleeting notion of identity, and a generation's fear of inconsequence.

But is it autobiography?

Not one liable to libel, Curchack forbids audiences to perceive A Surprise Party as a staged roman à clef and in the program cautions that "any resemblance of any fictional people to any real people is imaginary." Hmm. One cannot help but scour for a semantic loophole.

The video projection of roughly hewn camcorder footage (the quaint production values bring a deliberate, homemade familiarity to the piece) allow Shmaltzsky to interact with a Fellini-like roster of personalities who arrive to gleefully witness him do himself in.

Curchack portrays an exhausting 17 characters in all, including a cigar-chewing ex-wife, ex-girlfriends (both living and dead), his parents, his children, a mentor, and a cavalcade of friends that boasts a pair of deluded, upscale New Agers and the psychotherapist mother of a suburban cannibal in its ranks.

As writer and actor, Curchack invests each member of this guest list with poignancy and vim--even his less-developed characters, those perceptibly ripe for caricature (the requisite "Guido" and a tattooed punk son), are spared their default settings and effloresce marvelously.

Likewise endowed with dimension and shading is the unseen video-narrator, referred to as Vox, presumably Curchack's abbreviation of the Latin term vox populi, meaning "voice of the people" but often used to imply judgment. Hence, the omnipotent, tracheotomy-voiced Vox (undoubtedly inspired by the evil computer-intelligence Alpha Soixante in Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville) offers a continuum of hypercritical analyses of Shmaltzsky that encompasses such piquant observations like "[He] can't see his prick past his paunch," as the video proves with an image of the character's bare, genital-concealing midsection.

Throughout the show, Curchack evinces his knack for comic hyperbole and pedagogic digression. At one point, he demonstrates the function of phonemes and diphthongs by vocalizing in tandem with a tight shot of his gaping, video-projected mouth. The effect is bedeviling but eerily irresistible.

Compounding the work's self-referentiality is the fact Curchack shot his video accompaniment in an interior beset by mirrors that often reveal the video camera either mounted on a tripod or suspended by his own grip. Be assured this is not just happenstance: Curchack's authoring is total; perceived nuisance is nuance.

With no production staff (only Vicki Pesetti provides assistance during the performances), Curchack is not only the director and star of The Surprise Party, but also the designer of the lighting, costumes, makeup, and sound effects. Such totality of effort makes for exquisitely intimate theater, and Curchack refreshingly manages to stifle any issue of narcissism and self-adulation despite the work's confessional tone.

Empathetic audiences beware: Curchack so convincingly performs the exegesis of Shmaltzsky's suicide that it is difficult to quell the impulse to discreetly pass him a crisis hotline number after the show.

Theater-lovers should pray that Curchack survives this production.


A Surprise Party bursts forth Friday-Saturday, Feb. 13-14, at 8 p.m. at the Cinnabar Theater. 3333 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma. Tickets are $8-$12. 763-8920.

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From the February 12-18, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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