Dallas — The art of a good mixtape, as laid out by Rob Gordon (John Cusack) in the movie High Fidelity, is complicated. “You gotta kick it off with a killer. Grab attention. Then, you gotta take it up a notch. But you don’t wanna blow your wad, so then you’ve gotta cool it down a notch. There are a lot of rules.” Sundown Collaborative Theatre’s short play program We’ve Done It Again: A Mixtape, features a killer Side A, but ventures into overly abstracted deep tracks on the back side that end up leaving the audience with a lingering feeling of confusion.
The first track, Cody Lucas’ A Game, directed by Mandy Rausch, previews the evening perfectly. Marti Etheridge, billed simply as woman, commences with a progression of repetitive gestures. M. Lance Lusk as Man (disclosure: he’s also a TheaterJones critic) enters and is immediately confounded by Rausch’s movements. She attempts to teach him this “game” she has devised.
The performance is simple in concept and execution. A commentary on the nature of behavior and structure is obvious, tinged with an examination of communication, is engaging, if only lightly examined. Its placement in the program is appropriate as it serves as an apt preview for the evening: the balance between narrative, message and abstraction is deftly accomplished.
Jeff Hernandez’s Jon Goes to Mars, directed by Tashina Richardson, is a solo piece in which Jon (Paul Vaughn) tells the story of his application, acceptance and decision to go on a one way colonizing trip to Mars. Jon is a man who has never reached his potential in life. He applies to the program on a whim, and is surprised at his selection. Along the way, he fills in the details of what brought him to this moment. Mostly a case of a broken heart, Jon’s story takes the notion of rebirth to its extreme end by placing its protagonist on another planet. However, it’s not hard to empathize with Jon’s plight, especially given Vaughn’s personable demeanor. Sometimes the idea of a hopeful future, a fresh start, is appealing no matter what the costs, and Hernandez captures that spirit in Jon’s story.
Continuing the tradition of literal show titles established by its predecessor, Brad McEntire’s Lizard Boy Eats a Dorito, as the program even says, “is exactly what it sounds like.” Robert Linder, donning glasses in which the lenses have been replaced by paper cutouts made to look like the bulbous eyes of a lizard, slowly crawls across the stage, contorting his body into many a reptilian pose. At the other end of the stage, a single Dorito sits in the middle of a small, round table. An experiment in the limits of humor, the key is Linder’s Brando-esque commitment to the role. He carefully meanders through the space, testing the air with his tongue and staring down audience members before finally coming to his Mount Sinai—the table bearing a gift from the large bipedal gods.
Arduous pursuit of a goal is something everyone can identify yet. Life is stressful and full of unrealized dreams. McEntire’s piece captures this struggle in a way that reflects the absurdity of life. And Lizard Boy’s success in achieving his goal—again, the title is very literal—is a catharsis that delights everyone.
Role Reversal, a devised movement piece by Kelsey Johnson, Mary-Hannah McWilliams and Kyle Raper, explores the writer/character relationship. Raper plays the writer and McWilliams plays the character. He molds her to his specifications only for her to eventually fight back for control. There’s an argument to be made about a man trying to write a female character, and just how authentic that can be, though that case is not explicitly made in the performance. As with the theme of the night, even in abstracted movement, the message is literal and uncomplicated. Characters can sometimes take on a life of their own and end up co-writing themselves with the writer. Read any interview with an established author and note that this isn’t exactly breaking news. That said, the physicality of the performance presents the issue in a fresh context and is entertaining to watch.
As we reach the end of Side A, the audience gets an ominous preview of what’s to come. David Beckman’s Isn’t It Fabulous has its moments, but its fantastical elements clash too much with its realistic element thanks to an uninspired performance. Tiffany Bergh (Woman) and Mark Michaels (Man) are dining, separately, at a restaurant. Michaels takes offense at Bergh’s dog, nestled in a small pet carrier beside her table, being allowed in the restaurant. When the waiter (Paul Vaughn, who also directs) enters, he speaks plainly to the man. He informs the man the dog is allowed in the restaurant and a simple order of iced tea, cream of asparagus soup and sautéed scallops is taken. However, the conversation between the waiter and Bergh is much more imaginative as he refers to the dog as a gryphon and gives her food vaguely mythological titles. Michaels is thrown off by this behavior, which only persists with each visit from the waiter. Eventually his grows frustration gets the best of him.
The struggle for creatives to be understood and accepted by the establishment is important to any artist, and this piece places that struggle in a mundane context that emphasizes this divide. Unfortunately, Michaels’ portrayal of the straight man is clunky. The commitment to the confusion just isn’t there. He never gets angry enough to justify his rash actions.
Speaking of clunky, Side B of the mixtape lands with a thud. Matt Parent’s White Russian is Tommy Wiseau-bad. Set in a seedy bar that must be owned by Toby Keith because all the drinks are served in red Solo cups, Frank (Magdiel Carmona) is throwing Neil (Adam Sikes) a birthday party. But, this party has a violent twist as Frank reveals his knowledge of Neil’s affair with his wife. So, his birthday present is a modified game of Russian roulette in which a prostitute named Roxanne (Taylor Staniforth) pulls the trigger whilst aiming the gun at the men’s heads for them. The catch is that the man in the sites gets to ask the other a question before the trigger is pulled. Really.
This show is not good. Sikes’ performance is flatter than day-old tonic, but that’s not to say the other performances are any better. It’s difficult to discern whether there was much even time spent rehearsing. Director Collin Miller clearly took a hands-off approach to directing. Mercifully, the tech booth tried to prematurely cut the performance off on opening night—due to a lack of tech rehearsals for the festival, evidenced by many missed cues throughout the night—but alas, Carmona powered through on his final self-eulogizing monologue. Truly, this obituary was appropriate for the disappointing second act.
Connected is another devised piece, by Kaitlin Grassman, Robert Linder, Lauren Moore, Tashina Richardson and Paul Vaughn. Linder enters a stage on which the other four performers are listening to their music devices, headphones firmly planted in their ears. He desperately tries to get them to unplug, but the draw of tuning in and dropping out from human contact is too great.
Once again, the concept of this movement piece is not breaking any ground. The proliferation of screens in our lives is a constant source of angry editorials about the death of human interaction. Just as with Role Reversal, here the issue is presented in a different context, but the sentiment is familiar. Art, especially of the avant-garde variety like this, is by definition original and cutting edge. This was more an adaptation of an existing concept into a familiar medium. Aptly executed and visually entertaining to watch, but predictable.
Thankfully, Ben Schroth’s caustically funny Tyler’s Mom comes along to save the second act. Played by Betty Milligan, the title character, directed by Scott Milligan, carries on a one-sided conversation with her absent son. The monologue is random by design, but hews to a central theme of loss. Whether it’s his cat, his father or laundry, the subject of loss and coping permeates every ambling word uttered by Milligan. The question of Tyler’s own mortal situation is given a nudge as her inability to locate him hints at a woman more broken that the clashing patterns of her pajamas and muumuu would indicate. Schroth’s touch is absurd yet subtle in creating a fascinating character in a mundane situation.
The mixtape closes how it began, with a short, simple piece about communication. In Trying To Tell You, Tashina Richardson sits silently, Broken Social Scene's "Lover's Spit" playing behind her, staring at the audience. Powerful enough by itself, she then grabs a plain piece of sketch paper and a charcoal stick. She then demolishes the charcoal as she violently scribbles and smears the paper.
And that’s it. A brief exclamation point to an uneven evening.
Clearly, the theme of connection runs through the selected shows. Some work, others don’t. Overall, there’s enough that engages to give this compilation a listen, but expect to feel like Kate Monster in Avenue Q when given a perplexing mixtape by Princeton: Confusion with an overall positive feeling.
» We've Done It Again: A Mixtape continues at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 13 at the Margo Jones Theatre in Fair Park, and continues 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 16-17, at the Greenspace Arts Collective in Denton