Review: Are You Alive? by Debutantes and Vagabonds
by Michael Meigs
This evening was a predictable success for music and a huge disappointment for theatre.
Debutantes and Vagabonds, active since 2007 according to the history posted on MySpace, got a nice shout-out in March on Austin.com for their piece "A Brilliant Revolution." Ryan E. Johnson called it "hands down the funniest piece I've seen at FronteraFest."
So I was expecting something special for this "collection of macabre theatre."
D&V secured the Rollins Theatre at the Long Center for a three-night run made possible in part by a rental subsidy. The slickly printed 16-page program featured 7 full-color pages and an impressive cluster of ads and sponsors. D&V persuaded some notable Austin musicians to provide the entr'acte entertainment music for their program of six short plays -- the White Ghost Shivers on Thursday, The Georgian Company on Friday, and Scott H. Biram on Saturday.
Logistics and promotion were curiously out of whack. I scan theatre listings and postings regularly, yet the first I heard of this production was an e-mail from the Shivers just 48 hours ahead of the opening.
In similar fashion, the contrast between the music and the theatre was enormous. The White Ghost Shivers are accomplished musicians with a clever ensemble personality, a mischievous taste in music, and, all in all, a highly polished shtick. No debutantes or vagabonds, they; they're clever eccentrics and entertaining, recognized hot-lick musicians.
The six sketches presented by D&V were mostly unoriginal and sophomoric. The opening and closing pieces by Greg Romero suggest strongly that he has a nasty obsession with bondage, mistreatment, and body fluids.
Two other pieces took the brainless approach of satirizing television reality shows.
Aimée Gonzalez offered a limp variation on her earlier, charming piece Buck Henry's Magic Tricks. The remaining piece, Computer, provided the tag line for the evening: Are You Alive?
Reprising them in order:
Doctor Helix and Keggy the Keg by Greg Romero gives us a human face, gagged and bewildered, peering out of an object representing a beer keg. The amusement consists of wordless mishandling of "Keggy," Keggy's screams, and pumping imaginary liquid in and out of his keg, leaving him limp and probably dead.
Computer by Doug Spearman, Eddie Shannon and Fred Jones shows two bored workers watching a silver box and red light said to represent the world's most advanced, most expensive computer sometime in the middle of the twentieth century. The more junior of these two dull heads wants to ask the computer a question to see how smart it is, and the more senior wants him just to leave it alone. Questions get asked. Answers parachute down from the flies.
This was kind of a dim New Jersey Abbott and Costello number. Fred Jones and Joe Schlotter differentiate the two pretty nicely, and the piece has a couple of good laughs. It closes as they wait for the computer's answer to the last challenge question: "Hey, computah! Are you alive?"
Worse Girls by Sarah Saltwick, directed by Paula Russell, offers testimonies to the video camera made by the sassy, generally stupid sexpots of the "Worse Girls Club," describing"Kayla," one of their number. In the course of this we perceive that each speaker has the silent Girl in White standing close behind her.
The female video camera operator eventually addresses us, providing the identity of the mute GIW and a plausible explanation for her behavior.
Satirizing a television reality show is a pretty inert undertaking, but once you get past that eye-rolling part of it, Saltwick's portrait of the GIW through the words of others carries an eerie resonance. This is the first time in the evening that the "macabre" label was apt. Mattye Bresnen in that role was focused and intimidating -- her presence center stage at a strongly dramatic finale disconcerted even the White Ghost Shivers. For a moment, anyhow.
Ripe by Aimée Gonzalez reprises the "crazy family" thing, raising the "ycch" factor by having Dad and Mom coaching their boy Bean through growing watermelons as hands, since Bean has only roots hanging from the end of his arms. The aim is to get Bean's feat into the Guiness Book of World Records. Maybe this one is talking about overbearing parents? Francisco Rodriguez as Pa keeps urging Bean to eat his yeast cakes; Lizzi Biggers as Mom is late and inattentive. Jessica Loyd as Caramel plays a loony sister distinctly less interesting than the one Gonzalez created in Buck Henry's Magic Tricks -- Caramel's thing is to carry out cheers proclaiming the results of impossible multiplications. There's a momentarily amusing use of a Size Huge brassiere to present Bean's unappetizing feat to Guiness man Fred Jones.
Piñata by Fred Jones seeks to amuse by pretending to stage one of those horrible confrontational reality shows, in which host Veronica Matters (Lizzi Biggers) engineers recriminations between mouth breather Larry (Jones) and a female piñata that alleges he's the father of her child.
Zombie Heart Salad Sandwich by Greg Romero is a foul little monologue. Creepo Richard has been fantasizing for years about the cute neighborhood child Beatrice. Now he has her bound and terrified. We are invited to listen to his lengthy story and to hear the nasty permutations of his obsession, which ultimately involve automutilation, sandwich onanism, and an offer of self sacrifice.
Mattye Bresnen makes us believe that she is terrified. Karl Anderson delivers this repugnant story with good control and convincingly deranged logic. If the objective was to gross us out, Romero succeeded. I found no reason to stay with this text and I was weighing whether just to walk out. I held on, but only in order to make it through to some more music from the White Ghost Shivers.
The Computer guys come back briefly and get an answer to their question, and then we got to clean out our ears with the Shivers' hoe-down.
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