The Tremendous Tremendous Is Just That

04/07/2011 4:00 AM |

The Tremendous Tremendous
Written and produced by The Mad Ones
Directed by Jeffrey Withers

Is it innovative and original or is it uninspired wanking? In theater and far beyond, "experimental" is a dirty word; works billed as such are generally hit-or-miss. The Mad Ones' production of The Tremendous Tremendous at the Brick Theatre (through April 16) is unwaveringly on target.

Following their first award-winning retro-futurist romp, last season's Samuel & Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War also at the Brick, the Mad Ones return with another kind of one act period piece that manages to level its focus on today more than any other time. It's the close of the 1939 World's Fair in Flushing, Queens, and the Tremendous Traveling Abbotts, a vaudevillian performance group, "killed tonight," putting on a "masterpiece." At least they seem to think so. During their dressing room after party, we find out if they actually did.

Boiled down, The Tremendous Tremendous shows actors playing performers putting on performances and watching each other perform. As the masks come off, steadily and seamlessly, people emerge from the clown costumes. But the tension between person and performer, and more importantly between pure spectacle and forward-moving drama never quiets. With the exception of the newspaper conceit—like the maid or the messenger of the kitchen sink drama, providing that bit of exposition we need—the work constantly struggles against conventionality. It manages to pack in most of the customary matters of modern drama—alcoholism, homoeroticism, monetary woes and a love interest or three—while rejecting plot and obfuscating motivation. Every move toward meaning is subverted by nuanced and rapidly swinging emotional beats that expose the possibility that the Abbotts are either goofing or not to be trusted.

Despite a steady current of clever metatheatrical subtext, much of the dialogue is a type of brilliant babble that, if not spectacular in and of itself, is pure and spontaneous and brings to light the company's collaborative writing process. Incoherent, meaningless, or spoken simultaneously with others, words fail as language and become just another aural spectacle. The naturalistic 1939 set does not contain a single anachronistic artifact, and neither does the dialogue. But the language is atemporal and the subject universal. It shows us how common struggles persist across centuries. And as antiquated as the set appears, it settles quite effortlessly into the theater's exposed brick space. All of the props and costumes could have been aggregated from nearby vintage shops—they are out of date, not out of style. If anything sets us back in time, it's the warm analog hiss of a vintage record player which itself is no longer all that unfamiliar. As we look outward upon these ancient vaudevillians, perhaps with the aid of their massive dressing room mirror, we can't help but turn that gaze back on ourselves.

(photo: Andrew Smrz)