Reading the San Francisco Chronicle recently, I came upon a pretty distressing letter to the editor. In an attempt to cut costs, it seems, the Chron rearranged its comics page. The letter was written by a woman who wanted her Marmaduke or Family Circus or something back and went like this: “I understand that times are tight, so why spend money on theater critics when comics and advice columns are accessible to so many more people than theater performances?”
Why waste money on theater critics, indeed? I fumed, for a moment blinded to the reality that for many people, theater is inaccessible. It can be expensive, and it can take physical (getting there) and intellectual (getting it) effort. And then there’s what my pal Vicki calls the “butt-numbing factor” — those oh-so-deadly-slow plays that leave you shifting in your seat, hoping your legs won’t go dead due to loss of circulation. Or, worse yet, shows where you come to with a start, your head on a stranger’s shoulder, the delicate strand of drool that connects you to his tweed jacket shining in the light from the stage. One too many shows like this, and you, too, might begin to prefer the company of those wacky Family Circus kids.
Which brings us, happily, to Impact Theatre, the only local company that sells its own shot glasses, which proudly claim the tagline “Theater that doesn’t suck.” Impact is making its reputation targeting younger viewers, who it exhorts to “drink more beer” so the plays will seem funnier. Impact is also proving that laugh-out-loud entertainment and sharp social commentary are not mutually exclusive.
With the fifth annual installment of Briefs, Impact delivers with seven short, witty, topical plays that admirably showcase the skills of both veteran and new members of the Impact stable. The shows leave no time for audiences to numb out or nod off. Director Sarah O’Connell and her crew have wisely chosen to leave the audience wanting more, not less. I had the unusual experience of being really disappointed when intermission rolled around. Like a little kid who gets to hear only one chapter before bedtime, I wanted to know what happened next. I needed to find out more about the characters I’d met, people deep in the nitty-gritty of life — poetry slams, coffee addiction, terrorist-tainted consumer products, and the kind of impenetrable jargon that seems to be entering modern offices through the air ducts like a slow-moving, deadly virus.
The evening begins with the appearance of stunningly awful “international local stand-up” Kenny Rafters, played with tacky verve by David Ballog in Andrew Shemin’s Hello, Planet Berkeley! As Rafters, Ballog does everything wrong: He antagonizes his audience by making fun of their hometown, he recycles his material (badly), forcing us to sit through replays of other performances, notably Hello, Planet San Diego! and Hello, Planet Monroe, Virginia!
What’s really fun about this piece is watching Rafters melt down, hitting the water bottle ever harder, fumbling through his index cards, and generally acting like a ninny. There’s an interesting symmetry at work that becomes clear much later, when we see Ballog in the audience at a poetry slam making fun of the performers. His new character is clearly having the kind of unpleasant experience that Rafters subjected us to early on.
It’s a short hop from the comedy club to the staff meeting, where Jessica Hird channels her inner office drone in Elizabeth Bernstein’s Shake. Hird plays new kid in the office Violet, who has been tasked with “wordsmithing” the Process Enhancement Department’s mission statement. Firmly reminded that “teamwork is a force multiplier,” and that she’d better fall in line with her co-workers, Violet is in serious trouble if she can’t get her piece written. The problem is, what the hell does her department do? It’s impossible to tell by the corporate language she’s been given — language that would send Orwell to his grave, if he weren’t there already. As Violet, Hird admirably captures the panic of being the odd one out. Who hasn’t had a moment where they were sure they’d lose their job because they didn’t understand what was going on? Faced with a barely concealed dragon lady of a boss (the purring Eleanor Scott, making her Impact debut) and two horndog coworkers (Ballog and Joseph Midyett), Violet gets a little shaken up, but survives.
Impact Artistic Director Melissa Hillman says she wrote the third piece, The Last Hit, because Briefs always features Pete Caslavka as a stoner, and such a thing “just writes itself.” The play centers around a man who wants a little post-work “420 action,” but has learned that Osama bin Laden may have contaminated his product. But there’s more to the play than easy drug-use-induced laughs. It’s a dig against the consumerist frenzy that arose after 9/11, the spate of zero-down financing and “America: Open for Business” hysteria that swept the country. “If Americans are afraid to get high,” Caslavka intones seriously, “then the terrorists have already won.” This is just our first dose of Caslavka for the evening. We also see him as a smart-ass, history-spouting barista, a poet, and a very communicative dog.
This is what I get for complaining about Lost Cause, in which I thought the “brooding, dignified” Caslavka didn’t have enough to do. Now he’s everywhere, and he’s very funny. He gets to do things with his face and voice that he couldn’t as Tybalt in Sub Shakes’ Romeo and Juliet or as Cause‘s angry colonist Meric, and he’s clearly having a good time.
Another guy with a great face in this show is Joseph Midyett, a Cal State Hayward student making his professional debut with Impact. Midyett and his manic charm really stand out in The Oakland Coffee Party, where he gets some of the most outrageous lines — check out what he plans to do in Santa Cruz, for example, after he blows off the big meeting he and his business partners are supposed to be attending. The Oakland Coffee Party, written by Michael Maiello, has some of the most audacious dialogue of the evening. It’s a call to arms (or beers) for the generation that gave up their skateboards to become dot-commies, and I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if it makes a few people question their career choices.
There are also some interesting new faces in the climactic The Bacchae, which Hird and Alyssa Bostwick adapted from Euripides. The savvy theatergoer will note that the Shotgun Players just did a Bacchae a couple of years ago — but not like this one, other than a similarly convincing severed-head prop. This Bacchae is less than ten minutes long, and while the feel of the language is classical, it’s also clear and contemporary. “Over there,” Cadmus responds when asked where Pentheus is, “and there, and over there. I gathered the pieces with some difficulty.” I especially liked the sinuous twins Lena and Tina Folksmueller in their theatrical debut as the chorus, and Thom Flaminio is nastily sexy as Dionysus, son of Zeus, come back to Thebes to punish those who seek to discredit his divine heritage. Fast-paced and quite silly, I’m sure this is how Euripides would have wanted The Bacchae to be performed, if he knew the audience was made up of people possessed of both very short attention spans and an attraction to shiny things. Even for those of us who can boast that we would stay awake, maybe, through a four-hour version performed entirely in verse, it’s a refreshing take on the classic. And like the whole evening, it’s fast-paced theater that’s accessible, fun, and far more satisfying than the comics page.