Death, Sex: Election Season

In an espoused effort to direct attention to the talents of playwrights, the nine ten-minute plays that comprise Balagan Theatre’s shorts festival, Death, Sex: Election Season, draw from one pool of eleven actors, each of whom portrays several roles in the evening. Similarly, in further textual emphasis, all shows are directed by either Shawn Belyea or Jake Groshong, reining the evening’s offerings into a shared sensibility. The result is a conglomeration of plays that are meant to rely on the the strengths of the dramatists. Rough edges of production are embraced, and actors are encouraged to romp. It’s in the architecture of the evening. The implication of the approach is that scripts will hold water without conventional support, a task that is managed to varying degrees of success and failure. Each script sets out to explore themes of Death, Sex, and/or Election.

The evening I saw the show it was divided into two halves, the first half featuring five plays at eight o’clock, the second half featuring four plays at eleven o’clock. In order of performance, they were:

Part I, eight o’clock:

Nik Doner’s Blood in the Water¬†depicts a bizarre presidential debate, as moderated by Frankenstein’s Monster. The candidates, one a zombie (a right-wing blowhard), the other a vampire (a left-wing bondage enthusiast), go back and fourth debating various issues pertinent to the undead. Spending most of its few minutes leaning considerably on the silliness of its gimmick, the play makes a sudden (and ham-fisted) veer to conclude with a unanimous endorsement of third-party candidates, something the caricature characters would seem unlikely to do. It tops out as a fun sketch, and is powered mostly by Curtis Eastwood’s portrayal of the lumbering green moderator.

Ben McFadden’s ReCount imagines a Common Joe suddenly under a strange duress. Chosen for his averageness, our central character (Ahren Buhmann) must cast the tie-breaking vote in an important election. The rub is that, as the distillation of American ambivalence, he possesses neither interest nor pertinent information nor opinion in regard to said election, so cannot know or understand the implications of the decision he’s coerced (by weird, weird tactics) to make. An imaginative little assortment of characters and tidy switcheroo buoy and focus the piece in a manner that’s irreverent, yet cogent.

Amphrite of ancient Greek mythology was the wife of Poseidon, and alternately/simultaneously came to represent the sea itself. In Kelleen Conway Blanchard’s Amphrite, a ferocious scourge has emerged from the ocean to wreak havoc on mankind. Trapped in the fast food joint that employs them, reeling from the horrific decapitation of their manager (who has selfishly and foolishly tried to escape, leaving them behind), three co-workers must decide (elect) which of them will venture into the perilous world. With snappy dialogue and some well-timed comedic performances, touting several deliberately gaudy monster effects, Amphrite is among my favorite offerings of Death, Sex at large.

Wayne Rawley’s Sex Life garners the most vocal enjoyment of the night, showing a loaded and awkward post-bar hookup that launches into a charmingly wince-inducing onslaught of admissions, propositions, and evasions. The two-hander, featuring Colleen Robertson and, again, Curtis Eastwood, plays with what happens when floundering people mutually indulge their peculiarities in desperate efforts to achieve something. Even if the resolution of the work is a little convenient and sudden, a light touch in balancing comedy with tragedy leaves a nice taste on the palate.

A gloomy relative once told me, “In this world, you have to decide how much you’re willing to prostitute yourself.” Such is the premise of Matt Smith’s Mitt Romney Meets the Sphinx, a farce in which the title character must endure a terrifying vetting in order to become republican presidential nominee. Like every republican of the last hundred years, Romney must appear before the Sphinx (Allison Strickland), who will either kill or have sex with him, the latter result representing a political endorsement and an assurance of esteem. A little explicit and packing a couple neat design elements, it’s an exaggerated spin on the politician-as-shameless-monkey model.

Part II, eleven o’clock:

Lenore Bensinger’s Slim Pickings dabbles with the exhausted stereotype of the stupid and sexually repressed southern captive-taker, a goofball Deliverance. When two young Jewish men are captured and forced to perform patriotic klezmer music to the delight of The General, it falls on their sister and her powers of seduction to liberate them. Pickings manages a few nice performances (particularly on the part of the detained, who have more to work with), but doesn’t affect the eye-roll and wink it seems to strive for.

Emily Conbere’s The Seeping tracks the progression of two high schoolers’ campaigns for class president, following through to the eventual effects their political influences engender. Ambitiously comprised largely of film elements (campaign videos), the play begins with a light, teenybopper tone. Over the course of its ten minutes, however, The Seeping evolves into something poetic, somewhat abstract, and glaringly metaphorical, a welcome diversion from the gooning (to verb a noun) that comprises much of the night. It lands with a bit of a heavy hand, but successfully gives something to chew on, which one can take home.

Jesse Lee Keeter’s Election is a Russian spy thriller featuring undercover agents, a corrupt politician, sexual intrigue, and several layers of tactical deception. While becoming somewhat jumbled in its attentions it remains, like The Seeping, a welcome tonal shift in the night. It portrays both political ruthlessness and the valor to resist it in the register of a James Bond flick.

Lastly, D.S.R. is a quirky, off-kilter piece in which political titans of the past, namely Dead Sexy Reagan and Dead Sexy F.D.R., do battle. The term “dead sexy” in this case refers to the fact that both men have been exhumed from their graves, and that both are, in spite of this, somehow arousing. The show doesn’t set out to comment in any enlightening way on the lives or impacts of the former presidents, but rather handles them like celebrity commodities. It’s unabashedly glib.

All told

In Death, Sex: Election Season, some strong performances make lemonade of a good deal of conceptually weak text. Few offerings seeking to step too far beyond sketch comedy, it’s a light affair that doesn’t seem to put much pressure on itself. It’s a rollick (a bit of a tiresome one) for its own sake. It’s a shame the writing is held up as the emphasis of the night.

I’ll conclude in corroboration of what seems to be a popular opinion on the organization of the evening: As an attendee, beginning a production of this nature at eight o’clock, enduring what is effectively an hour-long intermission, and then resuming at eleven o’clock, is tiresome. It becomes difficult to continue to engage with the material. If I were to go again, I would divide the experience over two nights. Or, if I had my druthers, the show would make more economical use of time.

Closes tonight, shows at 8:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. // Erickson Theatre Off Broadway, 1524 Harvard Avenue // $15 – $20, tickets available at Brown Paper Tickets

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