Review: I [Heart] Walmart, by Capital T Theatre
by Michael Meigs
That great big pop heart in the title sends you the message: We're gonna send Walmart a great big exploding funny valentine, 'cause it's the place we love to hate!
That fits very nicely with the demographic served by Capital T Theatre. Their Austin theatre public is generally young, generally irreverent, generally idealistic in a fuzzy Austin kind of way, and ready for amusement. Those of us who haunt the Hyde Park Theatre probably spend more time in the bars and the music venues than at the stage, and we might prefer improv comedy or even, on an unplanned evening, late night television or the Alamo Drafthouse. Capital T's pre-show projections of mostly anti-Walmart skits from the Internet directly echo the Alamo Drafthouse's pre-film warmups. The Capital T crowd is eager to laugh at the incongruities of this American life.
And laugh we did! Mark Sheibmeir gave us a bouncy, funny satire as an imaginary trainer for Walmart greeters, those losers at the front door, and Mason Stewart did a wonderful, grinning, assured turn in bombast as the marketing man with a new vision for the company: the holy of holies, literally, for us American consumers. Those two bits written by Mark Pickell and Larry Hill respectively framed the first half and left us ready for more.
A lot of I ♥ Walmart went deeper than easy satire. In the two years that Capital T collected scripts and worked them over, they were attracted to writers concerned with the ordinary folk and the disadvantaged. You know: those people that we irreverent Capital T fans are likely to encounter, if at all, in the aisles of Walmart and Dollar General and Goodwill. Or peering dubiously at us from the street intersection as we wait for the traffic light to change.
Joey LePage is the speed freak who haunts Walmart at 3 a.m., when his kind and the fuckin' fatties in their fuckin' motor carts are the only ones in the aisles (Jim Fitzler's "Fuckin Walmart"). Adam Hilton in a piece by Brad Klypchak is Bob, back in town to take care of his ailing mother after a decade away, a wistful loser whose world has been reduced to the comic banter of the guys from the auto department and an addiction for theatre performed by those wonderfully confident kids from the local college. Kelli Bland in the piece by Spencer Driggers plays Gina, the loud mouthed, ill-educated, not particularly honest Walmart clerk ready to fight you for a slight and ready to complain that management is mostly male. Carrie Klypchak plays a Kentucky redneck with rich accent, stunning even this crowd with the tale of how she and her ex-con husband tried to sell the youngest of their four children in the Walmart parking lot, so as to buy a flame-painted dragster to haul them out of poverty (writer: Elizabeth Orndorff).
In this Whitman's sampler of the downtrodden, two actors stand out as the strangest, richest and most amazing of the lot. Travis Dean is the Texas good ole boy of Kenneth Wayne Bradley's Windchimes and Varicose Cream, telling the local cop a rambling shaggy dog story after getting a soggy sock of shit thrown at him for lovin' Walmart. He's live, he's real, he's a wiry, emotive philosopher who can tell you why this place and those plain objects are important. And Ben Wolfe is the foul-mouthed heavy metal musician consumed with rage who discovers on a late-night stop that not only does Walmart have industrial strength cleaner for that mess in the back of the bus, but its marketers do industrial cleaning of his lyrics on loud, anarchic, end-of-the-world music -- and make it sell to all those poor saps out there in Walmart land.
This is vivid, exciting well-performed stuff, characteristic of Capital T. Too bad that they made the decision to bring all those gifted actors on at the end to harrangue us with factoids asserting that Walmart is, in essence, the most evil expression of repressive, heartless capitalism.
I don't buy that view, guys. It's an easy smear, embraced and cheered by the uncomprehending self-righteous.
Okay, neither I ♥ Walmart nor this review of it are the places to educate people about comparative advantage, economies of scale, consumer surplus, the economics of trade, multimodal transportation, the role of government, the origins of the employment-tied approach to health insurance, or the Schumpeterian view of capitalism as creative destruction.
Some of this battle was fought and, happily for us, lost back in the 1920s and 1930s when the bad guys were named Sears & Roebuck and Montgomery Ward.
When a firm can furnish us -- all of us, and especially the poorest of us -- with what we want at prices that we can afford, it's okay with me that it's buying goods abroad, in the process creating income for all those working-their-fingers-to-the-bone Asians. Everything that rises must converge.
Immense market forces are at work here. While we can laugh and mock all we like at firms that understand those forces, we need to find informed consensus on ways to make those same forces work for the good of society as a whole.
Video by Carrie Clypchek and Mark Pickell
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1110 Barton Springs Road
Austin, TX, 78704