A Brief High

Impact Theatre's latest is edgy but ephemeral.

While I’m squarely in the middle of Impact Theatre’s youthful demographic — okay, the top end — I’ve never been to a rave. The closest approximation was a Halloween party that I attended five or six years ago dressed as a sheep (please don’t ask). For reasons that were unclear at the time, strangers kept hugging me and feeling my costume. Finally a man dressed as a cowboy was kind enough to clue me in. “It was so nice of you to wear this costume to a party where everyone is on X,” he said, stroking my arm with unnerving focus. So when rave newbie Sarah hesitates to enter the party at the center of Impact’s new play, Love Is the Law, her objection makes sense. “What if someone touches my pants?” she asks. To which her friend King responds, “Well then, you shouldn’t have worn fuzzy pants.” I was grateful for that familiar moment because much of the rest of the play made me feel old, square, and out of touch.

Playwright Zay Amsbury (Lackaday, The Wake-Up Crew) returns to Impact with a story that speaks to its time, but probably will not age well. A group of friends decide to throw a dusk-to-dawn rave in a Jewish Reform temple. Once the doors close, everyone is in for the night. The ravers are a close-knit, multigenerational community, dedicated to music, each other, and the judicious application of mind-opening substances. Among the guests, however, is a pair of undercover DEA agents who threaten to bring the whole delicate structure down. Both narcs attract the lustful gazes of our heroes Victoria and Kenzie, the party’s organizer and a dear friend who’s feeling let down by drugs and has been struggling lately to make a meaningful connection with someone. Sparks and doses fly as the characters get down to getting down — or in this case, talking endlessly. Will Victoria and Kenzie wake up in friendly beds, or wake up in jail? Will Sarah and King make discoveries that aid their superiors, or will they just make affectionate new friends? Why does Ann, an older and presumably more mature party organizer, seem like she’s up to something? And why isn’t anyone dancing?

That last question can’t be asked enough. It’s odd that a play set at a rave has almost no dancing, and that a play directed by one of the Bay Area’s preeminent fight choreographers (Christopher Morrison) is so physically static. Instead there’s an awful lot of talking, especially between Kenzie and Sarah, who seem determined to know each other’s deepest souls before any fluids are exchanged. Having heard that kids who’ve grown up in the shadow of AIDS have entirely different dating patterns than earlier generations, I wonder if this play represents the brave new world of courtship — all flirting, no nookie.

Another problem with Law is that Sarah is hard to believe as a character. She’s a DEA agent who is some sort of communication specialist, may or may not have the authority to arrest people, and doesn’t know chapter and verse when it comes to legal consequences. Yes, she’s new to the agency, but would the DEA really send someone this clueless on an undercover assignment? This turns out to be an academic point, since she reveals herself to the very first person she talks to. Setting aside her character’s credibility, Bernadette Quattrone handles the role believably — Sarah’s anger at what she sees as Kenzie’s betrayal, her unease at being in an alien situation, her self-consciousness (“I look ridiculous, don’t I?” she asks Kenzie, who politely refrains from commenting on her skimpy sequined butterfly halter top and Elmo backpack). One particular detail was nitpickingly jolting, however; when making phone calls, Quattrone didn’t give the person on the other end of the line time to respond, which seemed like carelessness from an experienced actress.

It would be interesting to see Impact perennial David Ballog in a role really different from the ones he’s played so far, because emotionally and physically his Kenzie reminded me so strongly of other characters I’ve seen him play — a reserved smart aleck who reacts more from his head than his body. Ann sanctimoniously tells Kenzie that he’s been “stuck at a dark place for a while now.” Ballog manifests this anomie as a certain slackness, describing his travels through a “vast serotonin darkness” in a near-monotone. To his credit, he does make us understand how Kenzie sees things. Sarah is a source of light and his friends are a source of comfort, even when they’re challenging him.

The subplot between Victoria and King is much more fun. Where Kenzie and Sarah smother each other with kindness, Victoria and King seem determined to peel each other’s skin off in strips. Slithery, dynamic Lisa Hori-Garcia plays Victoria as an over-the-top cartoon character — “Victoria Storm will blow right over you,” she threatens King, her lip ring and face glitter flashing adorably. While we don’t doubt her seriousness for a minute, it’s like being threatened by Hello Kitty. Kevin O’Malley’s King is a good ol’ boy, SWAT-team sort of guy as he booms in a heavy Southern accent “Goddamn, I like this broken music!” But his character unexpectedly turns into a pop-psychology-quoting, self-actualization expert who reveals that while he’s tough on crime, he also enjoys partying with tranny shamans in Rio. Hori-Garcia and O’Malley have the most fun of all the cast: they get all the zingers. Finally, Perry Smith’s Ann — as the wise elder of the tribe — does her best to be Mom, who fusses about which drugs everyone can take as she patches up their boo-boos.

Love Is the Law probably makes sense to people who have experienced rave culture, but it may be a real mystery to people who haven’t. Sure, it’s got a Romeo and Juliet quality, a “pox on both your house musics” flavor that anyone can recognize. But so much of it is rave-specific that it quickly dates itself. That’s unfortunate, because the bones of the play are strong — two people trying to break through to one another, a crowd seeking transcendence through music and drugs, and the sacrifices people make to keep their friends safe, all underscored by questions about the War on Drugs. Let’s hope this tension is emblematic of Impact’s growth process as it tries to produce more substantial plays without losing a young audience lured by the promise of nudity, goofiness, and martial arts. After all, we’re not going to wear our fuzzy pants forever.

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