"Since there is too much of everything, nothing is worth anything!" whines the Chinese Emperor. There is a plethora of cotton, the kingdom's cash crop, and while the average citizen may be doing well, the emperor can't keep his racing horses. What's a greedy, spineless autocrat to do? The emperor's solution drives a revolution in Turandot, which is also the title of the last play written by Bertolt Brecht, translated into English for the first time by University Ph.D. candidate Anja Klöck.
Following the emperor (Eric Robson) are a group of mortarboard-capped advisors known as TUIs. They are the elite in this China: Intelligentsia, pundits, spin doctors, and whores, they sell ideas and excuses. An innocent man can be walking down a dark alley and find himself accosted by a short skirt and a sultry voice, "Hey, wanna buy an opinion?" The emperor needs one; he has taken secretly to hiding cotton to drive prices back up. At the same time, a revolutionary named Chi Ho has begun to spout wacky ideas like equal distribution of the land--and people are listening.
So the emperor calls a public convention of TUIs, challenging them to provide an explanation for the missing crop. The prize? His daughter, Turandot (Cherri Macht). TUIs make the princess all wiggly. Macht's Turandot coos in her half-girlie/half-dominatrix voice (think Betty Boop meets Lauren Bacall). "When one of them says something witty," she purrs, "it just sends me over the edge!"
Turandot wears a big, gold cellophane bow and giggles languidly while Romulan-looking TUIs sit amid massive computers with plastic expandable hoses running everywhere. Actors move and speak in a caricatured frenzy. Scene locations flash up on a series of televisions that hang in a circle at the perimeter of the stage. Feedback, fax noises, and sundry electronic bleeps underscore the action as the emperor sits on his clear plastic inflatable throne in a room encircled with opaque shower curtains. (Yes, they do make it hard for the audience to see.)
The scenes are all broken by set changes punctuated by excruciatingly loud modem sounds. (Some free advice to director Anja Klöck: When you make efforts to aggravate your audience members, they usually end up feeling aggravated.) For the most part, though, all this style manufactures a comical and strange world. Yes, yes, we nod at intermission. Brecht would have wanted it that way.
Then things begin to get messy. The government melts down, and the actors--already exaggerating--become very, very loud, while lots of bodies create lots of movement around a wee playing area. Key lines are rendered unintelligible. The second act is chaos--though whether a flaw of production, translation, or script is anybody's guess. Still, the strength of the first act and Klöck's Zooropa stylistics leave us with a fascinating yet bewildering experience.
Similarly madcap but inherently apolitical, Larry Shue's The Nerd receives an enjoyable staging at the Gremlin Theatre. At the onset, Willum's friends are trying to give him a good birthday. That celebration may be undercut by the departure of Willum's girlfriend Tansey (Megan Bowen), who will be leaving her straight-laced beau in a week for a weather-casting job in D.C. Hotel magnate Warnock "Call me Ticky" Waldgrave will be at the party to discuss Willum's blueprints for a new building, but Tansey's macaroni salad should make everything lovely.
Ah, but guess who's coming to dinner? Enter Rick (Eirik Gislason), a greasy chap in thick glasses, polyester pants hiked up to there, and a short-sleeved, diaphanous shirt, worn sans undershirt. (Yes, we do see nipple.) Rick is also, Willum tells us, the man who saved his life in Vietnam. Up close, he seems anything but a hero: Gislason's Rick snorts and squeals, wiggling his thrusted hips and speaking in a voice that lies somewhere between screeching and grating.
It's not pretty. And he won't go away.
Over the course of Rick's interminable stay, Hansen's Willum undergoes a basic change: His arms begin to flail, he starts to cackle a lot, and his hair almost becomes mussed. The play (d)evolves into the silliest of mop-wielding, cottage-cheese throwing farces. And, best of all, the cast seems to be having as much fun as the audience.
Turandot plays at the Rarig Center through November 22; 624-2345.The Nerd runs through November 21 at the Phoenix Playhouse; 813-0385.