October 29, 2008

Risley's Production of Hocus a Razor-Sharp Treat

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True to the connotations of the production’s title, deceptiveness, shiny exteriors and kitsch were at the heart of Hocus, which was performed this past weekend at Risley Theatre. Wrapped around it all — or, perhaps, at its core — is a stab at the commercial, materialistic and altogether unnatural and exploitative tendencies of Americana, undertaken in an offbeat, darkly humorous style akin to Kurt Vonnegut in the ’70s. Playwright and director Will Cordeiro (current Risley Artist-in-Residence) targets advertising, technology and politicians — a move that, by today’s standards, is hardly considered revolutionary.
Didn’t the ’70s establish the evilness of large, greedy corporations and so-called “family values?” Cordeiro takes it up a notch, however, by cleverly intertwining and overlapping his target evils: The porn star is a robot, the Avon saleswoman is a taxidermist, the politician is the saleswoman’s supervisor — and the porn star’s director. It all can seem a bit overwhelming at times for the five-person cast, but the production is largely successful in adding another dimension to a genre that too often appears to have outgrown itself.
Many of the reasons the play works, fortunately, are independent of the varying amounts of “shock factor.” To be sure, there’s gender-bending galore, with humorous results (Ezra Feldman ’07 as undercover officer Jezebel Hackem was particularly well-cast), and the plot itself is one of which Vonnegut — or Jim Sharman of The Rocky Horror Picture Show fame — would be proud: Ray-Ray (JessiMichele Pollack ’07) and Ol’ Cheeznuts (Feldman) are retirees from the porn industry and have been sitting on their laurels for some time. Milquetoast (Cole Long), their previous employer, has plans for a new type of adult film, starring a post-traumatic-accident Cheeznuts. Milque-toast’s employee, Marium Delirium (Ariana Marmora ’11), has plans to sue Milquetoast for sexual harassment, and it is soon revealed that she’s working in cahoots with his “top call girl,” Jezebel, to bring him down. Nicole Vincent plays a supporting role as Boy-O, Ray-Ray’s servant.
But all this really becomes secondary. What T.S. Eliot called the “objective correlative” turns the plot into another prop. In tandem with the distribution of “gummy treats” during intermission, the purposefully obnoxious repetition of an advertisement for the unsubtly named “Placebo-otomy” pills — perhaps in a sly reference to Bradbury’s “Denham’s Dentifrice” jingle in Fahrenheit 451, which interferes with the protagonist’s ability to concentrate and recall memories — and the “election” of Milquetoast to the U.S. Senate, instills in the audience the sensation of something sickly sweet, unnatural and wholly commercial. Thus Cordiero, perhaps in taking a cue from Stanley Kubrick, circa A Clockwork Orange, creates a motif out of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, juxtaposing the technological with the classical.
The world that Cordeiro has created, then, is one in which the audience is at first intrigued, then gradually more reluctant to be a participant. The audience in the production is truly an essential part of the helter-skelter — as if we were Alice, falling down the rabbit hole and arriving straightaway at the Mad Hatter’s tea party. Although the characters would be better if fleshed out a bit further — many could be chalked up to cookie-cutter eccentric Dr. Seuss-types (for example, Cheeznuts speaks almost entirely in rhyme, and Boy-O would fit right in on the set of a Wes Anderson film) — they are, for the most part, convincing and well portrayed. They purport to be the inner mechanics behind our unabashed consumerism and laziness; we are watching these figures expose to us that everything we fear is true. During one scene, the devious Milquetoast explains to Ray-Ray that, “We could put anything, anything on the screen and people would watch it!”
Hocus’ graces go beyond the staging, however: Cordeiro’s script — to say nothing of the cast’s delivery — is razor-sharp, combining the gloriously nonsensical (Marium Delirium: “The effort to understand, to interpret, to re-interpret … where does it end?”) with the constant turnings of meanings and double-meanings. Vonnegut’s “Po-tee-weet?” refrain from Slaughterhouse Five and “Lonesome No More!” from Slapstick come to mind.
On the one hand we have Cheeznut’s jibberish; on the other is Milquetoast, who uses language to make money and gain power. It is no exaggeration to say that his character is most at home espousing kitsch, like, “God bless the goddamn U.S.A. — ya gotta love it, huh?”
What we eventually realize, however, is that appearances can be deceiving: Cheeznut’s actions and intentions speak for honesty and goodwill, while Milquetoast, the one we’ve “elected” to the Senate, is speaking jibberish when he triumphantly states, at the end of his acceptance speech, “I intend to be a tool — a tool of the American people!”
God bless the U.S.A., indeed.