BRAINWARP: THE BABY EATER
You wouldn't know it by the title, Brainwarp: The Baby Eater, but Annoyance Theatre's current late-late-night show (curtain time 12:30 AM, if you're lucky and Coed Prison Sluts lets out on time) is a witty, sophisticated, intelligent comedy, very much in the spirit of Get Smart or the old Batman TV series. Like both these silly but inspired shows, Brainwarp is set in one of those comic-book worlds where arch criminals are as common as dandelions and every evil genius has an entourage of similarly dressed henchmen (Ellen Stoneking and Mark Sutton, both in gray striped rugby shirts and black bowlers).
This time the mad villain is Brainwarp, so named because his brain was warped by an unfortunate encounter with radioactive shampoo. This evil genius has a predilection for flamboyant costumes: loud, poorly matched plaid pants and jacket, topped off with one of several pairs of unusual glasses, all reminiscent of the outfits Elton John wore in the 70s.
Eric Hoffman, who exhibits a dry understated wit in Goombahs! and Dumbass Leaves the Carnival, seems to be having the time of his life playing Brainwarp, a man who begins and ends every sentence with a sneer worthy of Edward G. Robinson.
Brainwarp's plot is pure comic inspiration: Brainwarp and company are compelled by a pair of evil villains, Tie Clip and Sideburns, to steal the "golden bologna." But first they have to raise cash for the caper by robbing a bank. Unfortunately, the Brainwarp gang, for all its posturing, is not very competent, and both heists come perilously close to failing.
Happily, Brainwarp's plans are opposed by a pair of equally incompetent police officers: a wired, trigger-happy Dirty Harry-esque cop named Pinky (Mike Monterastelli, terrifying in his intensity) and his cool, strictly-by-the-rules rookie sidekick, Stoody (Jodi Lennon), who prefers to pulverize villains with Emma Peel-like karate moves. For 90 minutes or so we watch them play a sloppy, often hilarious game of cops and robbers with Brainwarp's gang, until, through plain dumb luck, good triumphs over evil.
What makes this show especially wonderful is not its convoluted plot, but the way director Ed Furman and company have packed it with odd cultural references. Not just to cop shows, spy thrillers, and superheroes--though there are plenty of those--but to such unlikely sources as Gigi (Furman tosses in Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold singing "I Remember It Well"). At one level Brainwarp could even be read as a critique of or homage to TV's glut of trash.
The barrage of in-jokes and popular-culture references wouldn't be half as entertaining if it weren't for the joyful intensity the whole cast brings to the production. Even at 1:30 in the morning, after performing in a full evening of shows, these actors clearly relish every minute onstage. And the joy is infectious.
Brainwarp is not, strictly speaking, a purely improvised work. It was created, as both Second City and Cardiff Giant shows have been, from the residue of weeks and weeks of improvisation. Yet it has that loose, anything-can-happen feel that left me, at 2 AM, wanting more.
DUMBASS LEAVES THE CARNIVAL
Dumbass Leaves the Carnival, directed by Annoyance Theatre's founder and guiding light Mick Napier, is significantly more serious than Brainwarp. A dark, cynical allegory in the tradition of Brecht's The Caucasion Chalk Circle or The Threepenny Opera, Dumbass concerns a group of carnival performers so blissfully ignorant of money matters that they allow the green stuff to blow around the grounds like fallen leaves. Into this paradise slithers an evil one named Coffee (played with marvelous malevolence by Tony Stavish), who left the carnival years before with a suitcase full of cash and has returned powerful, prosperous, bitter, and bent on ruining everything by teaching the performers the value of money.
Napier has never made a secret of his ambivalence about money. In more than one interview he's complained about the effect of the profit motive on artistic creation, going so far as to blame his worst experience in theater, the ignoble failure of his Splatter Theater II in 1988, on the fact that everyone was more concerned with box-office receipts than the quality of the show.
Dumbass is clearly Napier's anguished protest against a system that teaches talented comic actors to buckle down, play the game, and perform not for the joy of it but for the chance to make a pot of money on a network TV show. There's an explicit reference to this in the show, when puppeteer Jodi Lennon is forced by her producers to change her show from an animal act to one that includes that sitcom holy trinity--a man, a woman, and a wacky neighbor--and her puppetry turns into mere drudgery, performed only for another stack of green.
Napier leavens his show with comedy, though little of it is as laugh-out-loud funny as Brainwarp. Even the repeated bit in which Susan Messing and Pete Hulne, playing a pair of loathsome roadies, show their love for each other by fighting all the time is funny only in the way that Raymond Carver's short stories are.
More often Dumbass entertains with its multitude of trademark Annoyance Theatre odd, intense, utterly compelling characters, including a Plastic Man knockoff named Stretch (Eric Hoffman); a half-man/half-lizard named N-53 (David Summers); a midget freak-show operator, Lazlo Moolie (Scot Robinson); and an ever-smiling man with pink hair in a pink suit whose heart is pure stone (Tom Keevers). There's something eerily fascinating about watching these actors disappear into their strange, comic-book personae. Summers, for example, is so convincing as the lizard man--crawling around on all fours with his thick green greasepaint face, hissing out his lines--it's chilling.
But not as chilling as the message behind this intelligent, ambitious, sobering show. Never have Annoyance Theatre's Brechtian roots been more apparent.