Fort Worth — Playwright George Bernard Shaw once said of England and America that they are “two countries separated by a common language.” Some similar connection exists between movies and theater. For all their common ground, the relationship between the two art forms has been snippy at best since the invention of film, with the one disdaining the other’s populism, and the other decrying the first’s snobbery. Dallas playwright Matt Lyle’s A 3D Adventure, in its world premiere at Circle Theatre under director (and Circle Artistic Director) Matthew Gray, manages to bridge the divide and act as a sort of raucously witty love letter to both.
In a crumbling old theater, a struggling theater troupe led by blowhard Doc (Bob Hess) and his Gal Friday Boof (Jenna Anderson) is rehearsing their upcoming show, a throwback to old vaudeville revues of days past full of sexism, racism, and pratfalls. Spoilers: it isn’t going well. Just as Doc’s actors (Whitney Blake Dean, Parker Gray, Olivia Grace Murphy, and Zachary J. Willis) are about to jump ship in favor of the new Star Wars movie, the quartet is abruptly sucked into some sort of wormhole. It’s up to Doc and Boof to follow after and rescue their wayward actors, who’ve fallen into the clutches of some unscrupulous characters looking to absorb all forms of entertainment, starting with live theater (as it’s the weakest). Since Doc’s latest show was set to change the face of theater and save it for good, the villains had no choice but to sabotage it and to eliminate Doc and his compatriots. On the trail of their actors, Doc and Boof bounce around from movie to movie, dodging menaces of the silver screen from the Graboids of Tremors to Michael Myers and his machete, to a climactic and copyright infringement-free “luminescent pokey stick” battle with Darth Vader, all in a last-ditch effort to save themselves, and theater, from total annihilation.
Lyle’s script — which was originally commissioned by Dallas Theater Center, but given to Circle — is densely referential, chockablock with movie quotes and homages, some obvious, others more obscure. A monologue of Doc’s heavily influenced by the Taken franchise provoked instant, knowing chuckles from the audience, while references to cult classic Tremors sadly provoked less vocal appreciation. But there’s something a little magical in what Lyle’s doing, using live performance to explore the magic of film and thus making a sort of simultaneous argument for the relevance and power of both forms of entertainment. “We’ve been conditioned to expect a certain sort of magic in our lives by movies,” Doc says mournfully. “It doesn’t exist.” But for moments onstage in A 3D Adventure, the magic of the movies does exist, through the medium of theater and its own brand of magic, in a sort of Russian nesting doll of wonder. Not everything in the piece works perfectly, but when the show’s firing on all cylinders, it’s thrilling to watch. It’s also just plain funny. (Lyle has referenced film in his plays, specifically silent film, with his hit comedy The Boxer in the 2000s.)
The promotional materials for A 3D Adventure namecheck the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby road movies of the 40s as one of many points of inspiration for Doc and Boof’s journey across the silver screen, and Hess and Anderson do make for a heck of a comedy duo in that vein, with Hess as the cowardly wise guy to Anderson’s endlessly competent straight (wo)man. It’s a tribute to both actors that you feel the years of history rolling off them. Hess brings a self-deprecating charm to the role that’s essential to keep the audience from despising the character who, on paper, isn’t overly endowed with redeeming characteristics, and Anderson finds not only her character’s dry humor, but a gravity to her character’s unrequited (and, honestly, inexplicable) romantic feelings toward Doc.
The rest of the cast looks to be having a blast, playing not only the members of Doc’s troupe but a cavalcade of other characters ranging from clichéd Eastern European baddies with wandering accents (Gray and Murphy, hilariously incomprehensible and inscrutably gendered) to a be-mulleted Kevin Bacon (kudos to Zachary J. Willis for not only almost pulling off said mullet, but for his acrobatic dancing—in cowboy boots, no less!) to the feral hillbillies of Deliverance.
The show’s effects range from the appropriately cheesy to more sophisticated. Doc, Boof, and the other actors are pulled through a curtain into a projected wormhole; Doc and Boof share a pre-taped conversation as they fall into the unknown, and unsuccessfully lip-synch an ennui-laden black-and-white arthouse film conversation; and the two are portrayed in silhouette as they ride a Nimbus 2000 towards the moon, booting the Wicked Witch and E.T. out of their paths. And the show’s set (from designer Jeffrey Schmidt), a shabby movie theater turned shabbier theatre, proved eminently adaptable as the action moved from the realistic to the highly meta. The sound design (from director Matthew Gray) was perfectly calibrated, and in several instances perfectly timed; a few instantly familiar notes from a banjo conjured all the requisite dread and humor in one scene, while the hiss of a “luminescent pokey stick” remained perfectly iconic.
So if you’re in the market for a funny, frantic dash through the best of what both film and theater can offer, make your way to Circle Theatre, grab some popcorn, and enjoy A 3D Adventure (no specialty eyewear required).
» See our video interview with Matt Lyle, in the Proust Questionnaire Offstage series.