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Directed by Jeff Keenan, Kamilah Forbes, Steven Scott Mazzola, Michole Biancosino, Lofty Durham, Jennifer Ambrosino, and Brian Smith
At the Metro Cafe to June 30
In this period of intellectual high-wire acts at the theater, when Michael Frayn and Tom Stoppard and David Auburn have us untangling nuclear physics, arcane classics, and obscure mathematics to get at the roots of the human condition, there’s an allure to a troupe that is smitten by smut, “dedicated to plays that appeal first to the body, then to the mind.” I went to Cherry Red Productions’ latest, Seven Deadly Dwarves, anticipating a refreshingly anarchic and raunchy change of pace. I liked the exquisite corpseness of the show’s origins: some playwrights hanging out at Cherry Red chief Ian Allen’s apartment, noting serendipitously that Snow White has seven dwarves, and that Satan promotes seven deadly sins, then drawing dwarves and sins out of a hat.
But I left the Metro Cafe after the show feeling kind of battered and sad. As nasty as they want to be, these equal-opportunity offenders, now at the close of their sixth season, continue to give the First Amendment a vigorous aerobic workout. I’m all for that and would climb the ramparts, should it come to that, to protect their right to do it. I just wish I hadn’t had to sit through it.
There’s something to be said for theater that rockets so far past the lines of good taste that one’s forced to take a distant view of taste’s whole topography. But shock theater has two major hazards: (1) It’s hard, in this day and age, to genuinely shock audiences without being downright injurious, and (2) such fare veers, usually, into self-congratulation and smugness. Its implied promise is that it will strip our eyes of social illusions and offer us something more solid, if rawer and uglier, in return. But if the stripping is done sloppily, or even done well but to no payoff, it’s not invigorating, the way you hope it will be, but simply corrosive.
Dwarves, in the twisted intensity of its cabaret commentary, rams smack into both of these obstacles and is totaled in the process. It attempts to make us gasp at the use of dildos, fake bodily fluids, body-odor jokes, nudity, nihilism, fetishes, and a graphic abortion skit, the last of which skips the local stops at gross-out humor and hops the express right over to cruelty. The past 75 years have seen Salvador Dali, Luis Buñuel, John Waters, Monty Python, Charles Busch, the Farrelly Brothers, Tom Green, and scores of self-revealing performance artists. If you turn up the German goth rock loud enough and distract us with those garbage bags to protect us from flying fluids, maybe you can convince us, for 30 seconds, that you’ve come up with something none of those folks have.
What’s regrettable isn’t that Cherry Red’s sizable crew of writers, directors, players, musicians, and techies isn’t talented. What’s sad is that it is. There are hints of boldness and incisiveness that really could transcend theatrical and social pieties in a pretty satisfying way, and a smart, disrespectful mind really is a terrible thing to waste.
There’s some promising Rabelaisian girth, for instance, in the premise of Washington City Paper contributing writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s Morning Becomes Olestra, and the title alone deserves a salute. The Python players’ retching fat man in the restaurant, about to bite into that one last “wafer-thin mint,” may be the close uncle of Harold Hogsworth (Stefan Aleksander), but give a detestable lug a suitcase-sized lunch and send him off to his job as a night watchman at a doughnut factory and you have our full, primitive attention. Like so much in Dwarves, though, the act turns out to be a trip to nowhere, fueled only by gas jokes, and even campy theater can’t get but so far on fumes. The SNL folks were sharper, with Will Farrell touting that appliance that turns flatulence into high-minded allusions to the Charlie Rose show.
Another misfire: Emily Rems’ The Most Foul Tragedy of Nico and Narcotic, which could have been an intriguing, if creepy, essay on self-delusions. Two prostitutes bill themselves as psychedelic songstress Nico (Fiona Blackshaw, in a weirdly riveting riff on heroin chic) and Princess Di (Beth Gilson, in a turn that manages to be both demure and debauched). The island cadences of a third (Camille Gurnell) belie less exotic origins. And a pimp named Narcotic (the versatile Flordelino Lagundino), who has a Ballardlike fascination with celebrity car-crash deaths, is so hip to the street that he ends up mating with it. But again, these intriguing misfitscaricatures of caricatures, to the point that they’re something more than caricaturehave, dramatically, no way out, and the piece’s meanness overpowers whatever might have been its meaning.
Or, speaking of foul, take the evening’s finale, Allen’s Doc Gets It in the End. We can relate to the fury of the young yuppie woman (Gilson) forced to sit around endlessly in a doctor’s waiting room. And we can certainly relate to her fellow patients, forced to listen in on her bitchy cell-phone calls. OK. Ratchet it up a bit, and clue us in to the fact that she’s actually waiting for an abortion and yet doesn’t want to be late for her afternoon spinning class. That’s sick, but heck, we’re not at the Folger, and we’ll give you a voucher for insightful repellence, an earthy whiff of the bourgeoisie’s discreet charm. What comes after, however, doesn’t push boundariesit just makes us worry about the segment’s creators. It shows us nothing. It tells us nothing. It makes us wish we’d made other plans.
However, let’s give credit where credit is due. Claudia Alick’s Boxing Ennui, a surreal hiphop nightmare about what gets us off, and what offs us, is deeply disturbing, but in a novel way that cuts through to truths about loneliness, lust, and our McLuhanish disconnections with disembodied others. Phone Woman Gurnell, in an aggressively frisky, hopped-up mode, works a suicide help line. The first kink in the line, of course, is that on it, she helps people plan their suicides. The second kink is that the whole thing is role-play. The third kink, we discover as she services a despondent client (Aleksander), is that it isn’t. Giving the proceedings a freakishly funny and frightening resonance is Lagundino as an off-kilter mime.
Taken as a whole, Cherry Red’s creatives are indeed creative, and brave, too. But they also seem a little lazyunwilling to follow through on their interestingly irreverent instincts. Seven Deadly Dwarves just begs viewers either to succumb to its slack trendiness or reveal the sterile expanse of their conventionality. And the only thing worse than a defensively supportive critique is a moralizing one. Maybe having your sensibilities trampled just to remind you that you have them has a cathartic effect. But if that’s not what you’re looking forindeed, if you never looked for it, or haven’t since freshman year of collegethere are a lot of good plays in town right now, well worth seeing. CP