Words Cannot Describe

Snowbound
Bald Alice Theatre Company

The Temp
Brian Kelly and Todd Price

Clock-watchers: Laureen Vignovich, Brian Kelly, and Michael Ritchie in The Temp
Clock-watchers: Laureen Vignovich, Brian Kelly, and Michael Ritchie in The Temp

Language is dead. When each Lethal Weapon sequel is "Hilarious!" what exactly is the point of words? How to describe art in a way that means anything when every movie with a talking dog is "Magical!"? More to the point, perhaps: What do you say when you find a piece you really believe in?

Jack, the blow-dried anchor of TV station KUTE in Matt Sciple's Snowbound, does his best to describe his passion for a fictional play within a play; he exhorts us, his studio audience, "You can spend an hour out of your day with us, two at most... Together, we'll do a magic trick older than words. We'll roll up our sleeves, reach deep down in our collective hat, pull out this huge... neon rainbow-colored rabbit, find the zipper down its back, grab hold, pull down, and look inside. And lying there asleep is a tiny child."

Jack might get sappy, but at least he makes an effort at impassioned speech in a world devoid of meaningful language--precisely the world that Sciple's play inhabits. Jack (Stan Peal) is a television reporter with a romantic belief in art's power to communicate. He sets out to film a production of a play called "Snowbound," starring Helen Wheels (Ellen Apel), Janet Green (Carolyn Pool), and Henry Wayne (Michael Booth). These three "actors" are media-saturated and spiritually desolate, incapable of creating the magic Jack promised when he took a camera crew to this "live" performance. (Meanwhile, real-life filmmaker Matt Ehling will edit the footage recorded by "Jack"'s cameras during all four performances into a film called, er, Snowbound. Confused yet?)

To Jack's horror, the actors take their personal problems on stage, discarding their script and improvising maniacally with characterless, "taste great/less filling"-type banter based on slogans and catchphrases. Every time their characters come close to communicating, the actors change the improv. Slowly, though, the improvisations transform into realism, and while their characters evolve, the actors' own conflicts are illuminated. Or so we think.

But the undercurrent is still abusive; there are no bunnies here. Desperate Jack tries to control the improv, attempting to create meaning--but the more he tries, the more the layers of reality bind him. And us. When, at the end of an improv, an actor bleeds, we wonder, "Is it real?" But by then the word "real" has been spliced and diced and that question no longer has meaning. And as Peal's performance as Jack grows increasingly silly, our instinct is to laugh--but can we? A "real" studio audience wouldn't laugh at Jack. Are we the "real" audience? In a world where everything must be set off in quotes, what exactly is going on here? And therein lies the play's achievement: Beyond the humor, the performances, and the sharp writing, for an hour after it's over our heads continue to buzz.

But we're still left with the same quandary: After all the superlative logorrhea of Lethal Weapon, et al., what words remain to describe those theatrical gems that are actually delightful? Neon bunnies aside, how do we adequately convey the sheer rapture of Brian Kelly and Todd Price's musical The Temp?

The play's conceit is simple but ingenious. A small office is trying to sell Product despite the unfortunate hiring of the disaster that is greasy, bespectacled Richard (a Tony-worthy Michael Ritchie). After a blown presentation, Richard gets his Pink Slip--but then the office is short a worker, and the boss (Tom Winner) decides to call in...a Temp.

Cue music: Clint Eastwood theme from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The sound of spurs. In struts the Temp (the show's auteur, Brian Kelly) in cowboy hat, red shirt, and lots of black leather. "I understand," he intones in a tumbleweed twang, "you're looking for some help."

Behold the power of cheese! The genre-ific music, Musical! choreography, and gee-whiz acting contain the giddy, life-loving irony of the best Muppet Show numbers. Several times during this hour of bliss various audience members sprouted tears; I believe these were not caused by the ol' "I laughed so hard I cried!" phenomenon but because the production reaches something damn close to perfection. Indeed, in the face of the Platonic Ideal Form of Art Itself, what can we do but weep? And it's a joy we know must be transitory, causing a pain best expressed in song:

To love a Temp is like to
Love the starry sky...
To love a Temp is like to
Love the wind or rain.

Because after the Temp wins the heart of workaholic Swanson (Laureen Vignovich) and foils the evil plans of Richard, who has donned cape and Lon Chaney mien to become the Phantom of the Storage Room (bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!), it's time for him to move on. "If I stayed," he tells us, "I wouldn't be a Temp." Isn't that the way it always goes? We come this close to finding true theatrical love and then, alas, off it saunters:

Just sign his time card
And he'll be gone without a word
But rest assured
That his legend lives on, yes his tale will
be heard!

With a tilt of the hat, the Temp walks into the sunset, leaving behind swooning office mates and an exuberant, cheering audience. Thank you, Temp. We'll never forget you.

Snowbound performs at the Cedar Riverside People's Center July 17 and 18. Videos will be available as well; call 870-9987.The Temp runs Saturdays through August 29 at Bryant-Lake Bowl Theater; call 825-8949.

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