Outward Spiral Theatre Company
The First Time Something Happened
Ice Age Theater
These days, fanatical fundamentalism is a trying occupation. First Ellen takes the whole Disney corporation straight to hell, then that nice Tom Selleck has to kiss another man, and what with pride marches and rainbow flags all over town, a white supremacist like Terry Goodman might understandably feel a little tense. Fortunately, gun laws are still lax enough for God-fearing citizens like Terry to walk into his local queer bookstore, wave a weapon, and compel its decidedly nonfundamentalist inhabitants to sing, "Mine eyes have seen the glory."
Terry is the focus of Outward Spiral Theatre Company's witty farce Holy Smoke!, written by local playwrights Michael Dahl (of the comedy troupe Hot Dish) and Stephen Gee. Sodom has been reborn in I Can See Queerly Now Bookstore, a den of iniquity covered in rainbow flags, safe-sex paraphernalia, and (gasp) books. Of course, as Stewart, a customer, puts it, "Nobody ever comes in here to read." Men check each other out while a woman shirks toward the cash register, thrusts some magazines forward, and runs out as cashier Bud shouts, "You forgot your dental dam!"
Enter Terry (Darren Marshall) and his wife Lois (Pam Kaufman), an Edith Bunker figure for the '90s. (Stewart is not suspicious of the pair: "With the slow death of gay entertainment in this town," he explains, "suburban housewife drag might be the next big thing.") A combination of mental illness, self-righteousness, and too many viewings of Dog Day Afternoon has led Terry to I Can See Queerly Now; he hopes to lure news cameras there to broadcast his polemic on the spiritual hosts of wickedness, etc. Terry envisions himself as the herald angel of Revelation and the bookstore as his stage; he's armed with a gun and so many Bible verses that Serena--a bisexual character on stage!--quips, "Anybody got Bingo?"
Long-suffering Lois, the not-all-fundamentalists-are-nut-cases character, had held out hopes that she could peaceably convert this crowd, then feed them pot roast. As she watches her husband cross the line, her reaction is appropriate to all hate-crime practitioners and clinic bombers: "Do you honestly think after you've killed all these people, God is going to like you better?" For Terry plans the spectacle to be a bit more fiery that he has let on. There's a bomb on stage.
He could flip on its timer at any moment. As soon as the media arrive he'll flip the switch, he will--
But first there's intermission.
Comedy itself is a ticking time bomb. If you shut it off, let people wander around for a while, then turn it back on again, nobody's going to pay as much attention. The second act is carried out at a frenetic, unwavering pace but the sudden threat has dissipated. And so, ultimately, this script seems like an 85-minute romp stretched into a two-hour, two-act play, and the time bomb threatens to become a bomb of the theatrical variety.
Nothing can really ever be too short; the human mind can only process so much zaniness in a concentrated period of time. When the zaniness entails obvious, painful (and painfully obvious) jokes, that period of time becomes much shorter. Call it a corollary axiom theorem to Einstein's law of relativity. And, for evidence, witness Ice Age Theater's The First Time Something Happened.
The premise involves a radio show where, again and again, a professor takes his dimwitted students back in time to...the first time something happened (the first time this plot happened might have been Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure). Each segment ends with a heartwarming moral such as "Bowling is much better for your self-esteem than college or a job." Or a sketch-comedy show? The skits do allow the cast members to show off their admittedly fine facility with voices and their repertoire of sound effects, but tortuous puns are the rule here. If this shtick grows on you at all, that growth is most definitely malignant.
Let's pause here to reflect on the great service to theater audiences--nay, humanity--that Bryant-Lake Bowl has done by offering beer at its productions; the waiters are merciful nurses with a ready painkiller. In the first (and weakest) trip back in time, a young Will Shakespeare is seen trying to write the defining speech for his new Hamlet play. The actors manage to incorporate seemingly hundreds of Shakespeare titles into their banter, and after young Will discovers coffee, he wonders, "Two beans or not two beans." There's a palpable sense of the entire audience leaning forward, grabbing beer, and guzzling.
Then things get funnier, when the script hits--well, when it hits. One trip takes us into Hell where the devil in the form of Keanu Reeves--you knew it in your heart, didn't you?--continues his plot to foil that other deity, Oprah Winfrey. There's even self-effacing humor: Circa 1050 A.D., Minnesota, a group of Vikings eats hot dish and looks for entertainment while Erik the Red suggests to Dennis the Green, "Don't book that Ice Age group; their humor is so cheap."
But after about 45 minutes, when a quick check of the watch reveals another 45 to go, even these moments become a kind of torture next to jokes like "electricity/that's revolting!"
Waitress! We're gonna two more over here, stat!
Outward Spiral's Holy Smoke! runs at the Phoenix Playhouse through March 28; call 504-2323. The Ice Age Theater's The First Time Something Happened plays Monday, March 16 at Bryant-Lake Bowl; call 825-8949.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about arts and culture events in Minneapolis & St. Paul and offers you won't hear about anywhere else.