Welcome back to The L‘s low-carb, deficit-reducing coverage of the Flea Theater’s #serials@TheFlea short, episodic play competition. We’re here to recap this past weekend‘s installment, which most everyone with whom I spoke agreed was the program’s most successful to date. Not only did each company gel into a more cohesive whole from the previous week (the first after a long break), but luckily each show staked out different and interesting territory, leaving little overlap in style, tone or genre. There were two tributes to wildly different genres, a modernistic take on corporate branding that doubled as a meta commentary on #serials@TheFlea, and new installments of an absurdist mood piece and a story that is shaping up to be very compelling. In a sign of how much this week had to offer, only six votes separated the first place vote-getter from the fourth.
Speaking of branding, the clear highlight of the event for me was seeing that the Flea printed out our coverage to serve as primers for audience members. I stationed myself next to a poster before the show, angling my bag to make the L Mag logo most visible in case any patrons caved into their desire to have me sign something. Being a hip crowd, they played it cool and pretended to ignore me, save for one girl who seemed to be enjoying my most recent recap until she was joined by friends who asked what she was doing.
“Oh just reading some bullshit,” she said, downing the rest of her beer, one of which comes free with a ticket.
In other news, scheduled musical guest Nathan Leigh had to cancel his performance after he “collapsed his lung while rocking too hard rehearsing for this very show.” (He’s fine and is recovering.) He was replaced by Ben Mehl, who did jaw-droppingly awesome beat box renditions of Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams” and “Come Together” by the Beatles. During the latter the woman sitting next to me, a baby boomer, wondered out loud whether or not he had written the song. Perhaps, like me, she’s working her way through the iTunes catalogue chronologically. But onto the shows!
The Rump of Folly, or: The Bachelor UnBachelored, by Patrick Barrette (episode one).
Before the event began I was chatting with Rump director Sarah Elizabeth Wansley, who told me the night would kick off with what she considered to be a fantastic opening. As it began with an enthusiastic bout of sex in the wheelbarrow position, Ms. Wansley and I evidently have something in common. The participants in this act of erotic gymnastics were accomplished lover Alistair and the randy wife of a local judge, Lady Bradford. Complications soon arise when the judge asks Alistair to teach him the secrets of wooing comely young lasses, unaware of the earlier tryst (though not without some close calls executed with screwball timing). This installment ends just as a new lady appears in town and the judge impulsively identifies himself as Alistair, a good cliffhanger for a show that will be returning next week.
– I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this title is much better than what was given in the advanced information, which was simply The Bachelor. That goes on the heap with Pansy and Something That Happened (which became Gone With the Wind and Of Mice and Men, respectively) as titles that would’ve meh-ed the works considerably.
– A quick comment on the production design of the shows: for the most part the action takes place on an empty stage without any scenery, though different shows will bring in simple furniture or other odds and ends as simple props. The space is divided such that there is a small alcove to the audience’s left (this is where Alistair and the Lady Bradford get it on in private) and a window along the right-hand side of the back wall. As for costuming, I’m guessing everything is furnished by what the Flea or actors have on hand. Rump does a good job of imitating the ornate fashion of the era on a shoestring budget, largely through the use of puffy wigs and the men stuffing their trousers into their socks. I attempted to recreate this style on my own, but as it would turn out the combination of K-Mart jeans in Bart Simpson socks doesn’t have the same effect.
– Barrett’s script nails the extremely elevated style of dialogue that marks this genre, but it is tweaked just enough that it parodies it. Alistair is described as a man who “leaves no titties unflapped” while a post-coital Lady Bradford is accused of “sweating like a weasel.” (Do weasels sweat?) I really enjoyed the dialogue and the fun the cast had with it (the acting here was over-the-top in a way that I suspect is the only way to play the farcical material), though judging by the time lapse between gag and audience response I wasn’t alone in needing a moment to translate the speech into modern. At any rate, the rhythm of the action is easy to follow and it makes the occasional lapse into plain language—”I am desperate for sex,” the judge admits—that much funnier.
– The opening sex scene is presented graphically; I like to think that the company, coming off a series of scripts written by a five-year-old, got together and said, “for a change of pace, let’s just do something that is absolutely filled with nudity.”
– This seems like a good time to note that an interview with this group is hopefully forthcoming.
The Connectors, by Seth Moore and Donaldo Prescod (episode five).
This installment of The Connectors is entitled “Rise of the Disconnectors,” and with it, the world of the show expands considerably. The episode begins with the Connectors, a pimp, and the pimp’s “sugar pussies” trying to avoid drowning in a river following an attack by a mysterious new foe. They save themselves (the pimp stops to take a break while hauling his SPs in) and find their common enemy, the Disconnectors, a fiendish group set on destroying the Connectors, whom you will remember are detectives seeking to solve “missed connections” notices on Craigslist. But the motive for the hate stems from good ol’ free market competition rather than a desire to not see people connected. In a twist I thought was quite inspired, the Disconnectors aren’t made up of asses who want to see the world sad and lonely, but instead are representatives for other sites seeking to pair people (Adult Friend Finder, MySpace, JDate—which laments it isn’t part of the worldwide Jewish conspiracy that controls everything else from behind the scene). The installment ends as the Disconnectors’ leader is reunited with a missed connection of his own from long ago. I’m sure the group will be around in subsequent episodes, but really this seems to tell both the rise and fall of the group.
– Last episode’s narrator was C. S. Lewis; this week had Twilight scribe Stephanie Meyer. I’d guess at who will narrate next week, but I don’t know Sarah Palin’s third-favorite author. (Ed. Probably Sarah Palin.)
– I continue to like the groovy vibe the cast puts out; the attention to the stylized dialogue is no less meticulous than Rump‘s. An especially nice touch is the SPs’ way of punctuating others’ lines of dialogue by shouting them. I was reminded of the trio of doo-wop girls in Little Shop, only with more sex for cash.
– The show anchors itself against all the goofiness with some sly insight. Not to make too much of this—it does have a pair of Sugar Pussies, after all—but really, this is a serial about people’s need to make emotional connections and the anxiety that comes with the fear that we’re going about trying to make those connections incorrectly. It isn’t a searing examination of alienation in an online world, but that stuff is there for those who want to look for it, and it goes a long way in explaining why, with this week’s victory, The Connectors officially becomes the longest-running ever in #serials history. It will return with its sixth episode next week.
O’Hare, by Alena Smith (episode two).
This episode picks up a day after the events of the first, which you will remember ended with a woman baring her breasts to her confounded male co-workers. As with the first episode, part two begins with a man eating a fruit salad in silence, only to be joined by his colleague. They discuss the “unprecedented” previous day, though they leave what happened after the blackout undefined. Enter Michelle again, though this time she doesn’t come onto them sexually, opting instead to spend the time topless and nonchalant about it. Understandably, the men don’t know how to respond to this (they debate whether she should be described as a slut, baby, bitch or handmaiden); she suggests they just pretend she is dressed, the way she’s pretending that one of the men’s balls aren’t hanging out of his pants, something that had escaped his attention. The three return to their earlier discussion about the Chicago O’Hare airport, which takes on new meaning given the imminent arrival of the company’s Chicago team, who show up in Secret Service sunglasses and sans pants.
– Despite the fact that a full-on orgy was essentially telegraphed for episode three, O’Hare didn’t make the cut to return next week. I would’ve been interested to see what happened with the Chicago team.
– The characters blame the fruit salad for the previous episode’s events. For some reason this reminded me a lot of the film Celtic Pride, where sports-fan superstitions are taken to extremes. (And with that, Celtic Pride has been referenced for the first time in ten years.)
– I was curious as to how the tone of the first one would be carried over into part two and was surprised to see it done so well. The stakes are elevated with Michelle’s newfound confidence, but the show moves away from the sexual politics it explored last week. The depiction of the Chicago team (two women and a man) suggests the show takes place in a world where everything is skewed rather than commenting too much on ours. (Playwright Alena Smith discusses this in our recent Q&A.)
– Here’s yet another serial that places special attention on the dialogue. But rather than aping a known genre, here the most banal statements are infused with such purpose they at least sound profound. (Consider the final exchange: “You must think about Chicago all the time.” “Actually, lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Wisconsin.”) I bet that with a different cast, this script would play quite differently.
Others in the audience laughed uproariously throughout the piece. I found it funny, but not in a “ha ha” way. Perhaps some were as uncomfortable as the characters, unsure of how to react to the nudity?
– Side note: I noticed that most of the men in the audience were focused on the side with actress Sade Namei while the women looked back and forth following the action. My own personal eyes were facing down as I took dutiful, tasteful notes.
Too Soon, by Dylan Dawson (episode one).
– I’m jumping ahead to stray thoughts here, since the piece didn’t have much of a plot, but briefly: at a funeral for a (real life) font and logo designer, a group of Bats (the resident Flea company producing and performing #serials, remember) take over the proceedings. One Bat wants to protest, on the grounds that the dead man created warmer feelings towards corporations than they deserve, but other members either don’t share his enthusiasm or wax nostalgic for how certain fonts remind them of childhood. Actor insecurity is another prominent theme, as Bats fume over lack of agent representation and another company member getting a callback. There’s also some meta-commentary as the Bats (presumably) play themselves and bicker about how theirs is the only team to never have a serial advance to a second episode. This is either bold or desperate, depending on your view.
– I don’t want to make too much of the voting, but it is notable that while all four other shows got between 70 and 80 votes each, this one didn’t crack 30. I’m not sure that’s an unabashed knock against it, though. It didn’t want for ambition or ideas, but one thing it didn’t have—intentionally, from the look of it—was drama. And since there was no plot and a slippery notion of characters, the success of Too Soon rode on the strength of the ideas being presented. This was a gamble, though not one that paid off. The meta material didn’t mesh with the commentary in a way that illuminated any thematic connection between the two (unless it wanted to compare political and theatrical narcissism?) The show’s ideas were provocative, though I’m not sure how much you can link the design of a company’s logo to whatever ill deeds you want to ascribe to it rather than, say, its lobbying muscle. There’s something to be said about how the packaging of content can influence our view of the content as much as than the content itself, and while this makes interesting food for thought, I just think that had the group found a way to consider this point dramatically, rather than having an actor essentially give a polemic, would’ve made for more interesting theater. Had this been selected for a second installment, I have no idea where it could have gone.
– I’m going to bring up the film Helvetica, which is both really interesting and incredibly boring. Too Soon makes the same points the film does but in an eighth of the time.
– The characters discuss the GE logo and argue over whether or not it’s art. I don’t see why not; there’s an elegance to the script that’s aesthetically pleasing, even if neither symbol looks like a “G” or an “E.”
– For years I thought that the “D” in the Disney logo was actually a backwards “G” for some reason.
– My day job is with Reuters, which has a swirl of dots as a logo. The rumor is that the designer who developed the logo got the idea after watching the water in a flushing toilet. Just FYI.
UnFuck Yourself, Rhys Bauer! by Josh Barrett (episode three),
UnFuck picks up some time after the events of episode two, though things have gotten no less unfucked for Rhys. Now he’s in the middle of the production of Cap’n Crunch: The 3D Movie and struggling to keep his grip on it. His suicidal writer persists in thinking that the film is actually an adaptation of Moby Dick, and is flummoxed by studio notes demanding he include breakfast scenes and liberally add the word “crunchy.” (The studio always wants all references to whales removed, given the childhood obesity epidemic and the still-unproven link between eating a pound of sugar for breakfast and being a fatass.) In addition, his new boss—a former assistant—has promised she will never fire him until he apologizes for such past transgressions as using her as an office chair. Finally, his star—the gun-toting brother of his girlfriend and star of Cap’n Crunch, remember—demands drugs. Rhys makes his intern “go buy me as much cocaine as you can” with funds siphoned from a studio slush fund. Unfortunately, the intern returns with said drugs just as police have arrived on set, demanding Rhys start paying pre-natal childcare. In her nervousness, the intern trips, spilling cocaine all over everyone.
– The ending of course reminds me of Annie Hall‘s famous “spilled cocaine” gag. One time I watched that scene with my mother, who shook her head and said, with surprising specificity, “Wow, that had to have been a good $7,600 right there.”
– I’m not sure why the author is so confused by the request for more breakfast scenes; Moby Dick is one of the few novels that uses the sense of taste to immerse us in the world of the story. (The name of chapter five? “Breakfast.” There’s a later one that’s essentially a detailed description of the chowder the Pequod crewmembers eat.)
– By jumping ahead in time, this episode ignores the previous cliffhanger, which had Rhys at gunpoint and on camera, with both device-pointing parties demanding a show of loyalty. No idea how he unfucked himself out of that one (I can hardly imagine Lost leaving such a loose end), but by moving ahead the show actually addresses some of the thoughts I had last week. I worried that by piling problem after problem on Rhys, things would get tedious. But by allowing some progress to be made in the unfucking, this episode felt a lot more flexible and freer. I’m not sure whether episode four will begin with cocaine all over the place (though if a single grain is out of place I’m raising hell about continuity errors), but I like where this is going.
– Funny how lines take on different meanings when viewed from different perspectives. The “I’ll never fire you” line is a threat on one hand, but who here wouldn’t like that kind of security in this wintry job market? Also, in my first preview I wondered whether the title was a Lenny Bruce reference. You may recall Bruce suggested people yell “unfuck you!” when insulting others, since that would be the opposite of “fuck you” and people like fucking. Before I viewed the title as encouraging Rhys, now I can’t help but see it as a stressful order.
– I haven’t said much about individual performances yet, which you shouldn’t take as any kind of comment on the talent on display. For the most part, the serialization format lends itself to more outlandish characterizations and stories, sometimes at the expense of nuance and subtlety. This show is a big exception, and major credit should go to Tiffany Abercrombie, all ticks and nerves as the intern, and Stephen Stout as Rhys. Playing the straight man is often a thankless task, but Stout keeps things grounded and is funny himself while subtly making everyone around him funnier. It’s a lot more complex than it first appears.
– On a related note, Stout—#serials’ co-producer with Dominic Spillane, who plays Alistair in The Rump of Folly—has been inconceivably helpful in getting me information for use in this coverage. Plus, I’m like 99% certain that he played Shawn in Boy Meets World. And, if so, there’s a chance he can set me up with Topanga.
The third and final week of #serials@TheFlea’s second cycle takes place Friday at midnight and Saturday at 11pm and 1am.