Cocktails at the Centre of the Earth at Annex Theatre: Rollicking, Yet Empty, Times

July of 2009, NYC’s Producer’s Club, the curtain goes up for the first time on Simon Astor‘s irreverent steampunk comedy, Cocktails at the Centre of the Earth. Over two years later and some time-zones west of the fifty-seat theater where the work enjoyed its premiere, Cocktails is mounted once again at Seattle’s Annex Theatre, on Capitol Hill. Under the directorial auspices of the playwright himself, the play is a tongue-in-cheek–even self-effacing–farce, a light-hearted poking-fun of science fiction (and at times, social) cliches.

To begin talking about the work let’s recognize its core conceit: comprised largely of deliberately eye-rolling and groan-inducing puns and witticisms, Cocktails makes a point of eschewing any discernible plot to play. With a taste for anachronism that is essential to the steampunk fantasy–characters spontaneously catch a lounge act in a dirigible, yet mummy power is a booming industry–the show paints the speculative imagination of The Difference Engine in the aesthetic of Frank R. Paul. It describes something like the visions of Verne or Wells in a language somewhere between the ironic colloquial of today and that of the nineteenth-century industrialist. This is to say, this show relishes in impossibility and contrast.

Cocktails finds its home in one basic structure, which it reiterates four times over: Caricatures of characters meet in a lounge (one on land, one in the air, one in the sea, one, yes, at the centre of the earth), where they drink and ping-pong from subject to subject. Some disaster strikes or some impetus is otherwise established, and haste must be made to another lounge, where there will be more singing (there is a song at each lounge), drinking, quipping, squabbling, plotting, and seducing.

The ensemble includes but is not limited to a talking fox (a particularly amusing and creepy aspect of the show), a mummy fuel tycoon, a lesbian rocketeer, workers rights extremists, street urchin conspirator-lovers, a deadpan joke-cracking robot, and sea horses. An eclectic mix. But what the play gains in the fancifulness of such a large and diverse roster it compromises in the capacity (or attention?) to pursue any one story-line with any thoroughness or detail. Umpteen funny things will be said, yet the results of them having been said won’t be trifled with, so nothing will stick with any particular consequence. Imagine taking a scene from an Austin Powers movie, stretching it to a half hour, and playing it four times over in vaguely different settings and conditions. The point is the one-liner, through which a strong wit is on display, but a wit that concerns itself mostly with surface-level commentary, and with the sound of itself.

The airtight live band, as well as the beautiful music that’s been written for it, merit specific mention. More, the voices brought on to carry the material are powerful and attention-seizing, singers contributing with varying degrees of ability to what amounts to the foremost success of the show (arguably matched by the eye-catching and appropriately stylized costume design). It must be said, though, that musical numbers tend to erupt from nowhere and bear very little import on the narrative; they top out as auditory window dressings that reverberate pleasingly in the ear, which deserve to be motivated.

At the end of the day Cocktails at the Centre of the Earth hits every mark it sets for itself, so on these grounds must constitute a success. While I left Annex with a hunger in my stomach for something more substantial, consider checking out the play for a helping of theatrical candy corn.

Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m., through February 26 // Annex Theatre, 1100 E. Pike St. // $5 – $15, Thursday PWYC, tickets available through Vendini, click “Buy Tickets Now!” here

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