Review: The Callers. Book and Lyrics by Ella Dorband & Ali el-Gasseir. Music by Richard Andriessen. Directed by Andrew Russell. With Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako, Ali el-Gasseir, Richard Andriessen, Kate Sumpter. Now through February 6 at Washington Ensemble Theatre.
Fancy Mud. Written by Carter Rodriquez, Sachie Mikawa, George Lewis and John Leith. Directed by George Lewis. Performed by Le Frenchword: Sachie Mikawa, Ben Burris and Carter Rodriquez. Now through January 28 at Re-bar.
The Seattle 2012 theatrical season started out great…the first two shows of the year (Balagan’s “Spring Awakening” and Seattle Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus”) both had strong performances and solid productions. It was a pleasant way to start the new year. Sadly, that streak came to an end with Washington Ensemble Theatre’s world premiere of their own in house generated new musical “The Callers”. Theater fans have come to expect edgy, odd, challenging work from WET but the last year has been a bit lean for the company and “The Callers” is symptomatic of their general malaise. While “The Callers” doesn’t feature adults playing children or characters turning into horses, dodos, or talking poultry, it also doesn’t manage to venture into any other new genres worth exploring. It’s basically the movie “Ghost” tarted up with some dirty talk and some not very interesting pop/rock songs. The usual WET touches are there: strong performances and interesting design elements with some nice directorial touches from Andrew Russell, but the basic plot of the play is very pedestrian. That, and the songs aren’t very memorable. (You know you’re in trouble with your musical full of original songs, when the audience leaves the theater humming the one song not written for the show. Beck’s “Loser” is briefly sampled during a scene, and it’s the only song that remains in your head when the show is over…)
I’m also going to pick a bone with WET for how they’re marketing this show. The poster and the PR seem to indicate a naughty romp about phone sex operators. Yes, that’s an element of the show…a tiny element. The main character of “The Callers” is a young woman named Bea who is grieving for her recently departed boyfriend Clark, and trying to cope with her new job as a phone sex operator. Her goofy roommate Emma got her that job AND also turns Bea onto a phone psychic line run by the smarmy charlatan Viktor. Initially skeptical of the shady service, Bea soon starts to find some comfort from conversations with phone psychic Kevin who may or may not be actually channeling the dead Clark. Meanwhile, a trio of desperate callers reach out to both the psychics and the sex workers…wackiness and bland musical numbers ensue. And, it doesn’t really have that much to do with phone sex.
MORE after the jump.
The main problem with “The Callers” is the script by Ella Dorband and Ali el-Gasseir (who also plays the psychic Viktor). The concept of doing a musical about phone sex workers and psychics is one with a lot of great potential, but it’s not realized in this show. Or, I should say it’s partly realized; the two phone psychics, Viktor and his new protege Kevin are interesting characters and their interactions with the callers are amusingly done, but the stuff with the psychics and the callers is all incidental to the main plot which concerns Bea and her grief over the loss of her boyfriend and frankly, I don’t care about Bea, or her loss, or the possible ghostly presence of her dead boyfriend. I’ve seen that play/movie/book many times before. Slapping phone sex and psychics onto a very old plot doesn’t obscure the fact it’s a very old plot. And, I’m not saying you can’t use the “ghostly love that extends past the grave” trope, but if you do use an old chestnut like that, you need to fundamentally turn it on its head. Adding nutty characters and potty language isn’t reinventing this old wheel; it’s just covering it up with “Garbage Pail Kid” stickers and calling it a day.
It also doesn’t help that the main character Bea is a bit of drip and not a fully actualized character. (It’s also tough for a kooky, hipster musical to really get off the ground when your main character is depressed and grieving.) The scenes involving the fun characters move along and have some life to them, but most of the scenes with Bea, just sit there and look pained. The only exceptions are the scenes between Bea and the phone psychic Kevin. There’s a lovely rapport developed between the characters and some excellent chemistry between the actors but just when you think that is going to be the main focus of the show, it dwindles away to something different that’s not very satisfactory or coherent. AND, that leads to the worst part of “The Callers”… the Ending. I won’t give it away, (because I’m not a dick…no, really!) but it doesn’t make any sense. As written, directed and performed, the denouement of the play isn’t logical or believable. The choices made by one of the characters do not fall in line with what we have been presented during the course of the show. It’s just contrived and hokey.
“The Callers” does have a lot of great things going for it. Andrew Russell makes the best of the material on hand and there are some nicely staged moments including a terrifically energetic opening number (with choreography from Markeith Wiley) and a haunting moment that makes excellent use of Charlie Pennebaker’s vivid lighting and Andrea Bryn Bush’s set which encompasses the back wall of the theater stage and the windows looking out to the alley. It created an effect and a mood that managed to be both beautiful and creepy and I kept waiting for it to be continued throughout the play… but it never happened.
As for the actors, there were stand outs and some missed opportunities. Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako has a lovely singing voice and strong presence but her role as Bea is never fully written or sufficiently motivated enough to create much interest for the audience. Bea drags down the entire night and the actress’s talent and personality can’t really save it. The only time she really gets to shine and enjoy the role, is in her scenes with Richard Andriessen as the love struck psychic Kevin. As I mentioned earlier, the scenes between those characters had interest, warmth, passion and vitality that were never sufficiently exploited. And, Mr. Andriessen is utterly wasted in this role…he’s funny and charming both in his scenes with Bea, and equally at home in the very comedic moments with Ali el-Gasseir as his boss/mentor Viktor especially when he tries to ape Viktor’s phone techniques on his first calls as a psychic. But, the character sort of fades away by the end of the night and the play fails to explore one of its stronger characters. As for Mr. el-Gasseir, he gets the biggest laughs of the evening as the flamboyantly theatrical con artist, (though some of the comedy does suffer through excessive repetition) but we never get to see much beyond the surface of the character. Frankly, “The Callers” would have made a stronger show if the focus was on Viktor and Kevin, with Bea as the love interest…all plays, but especially musicals, should play to the strengths of its strongest characters…something “The Callers” fails to do.
What’s my advice to the creators of “The Callers”? One: musicals can take years to perfect. Two: You’re all ridiculously young and talented. You have plenty of time to rewrite this show. The basic premise is sound. Take your strongest characters and start from scratch. Make Viktor and Kevin and the psychic line the center of the show. Or, actually do a show about phone sex workers. Or, better yet, do “RoboPop 2: Electric Boogaloo”! I need more Robot Love.
Meanwhile, down at Re-bar, the theater collective Le Frenchword is presenting the latest version of their piece, “Fancy Mud” a collection of interconnected sketches reflecting on…all sorts of interesting things including their thoughts on space, time, black holes, bunny rabbits, three legged cows, the creation of the world and yes, even some “Fancy Mud” (as opposed to regular old mud). And, it’s a charmingly odd and beguiling hour or so of entertainment best suited for the arty theater crowd. But, if you’re looking for fart jokes, parodies of “Footloose” and men dressed as women wearing giant turkey costumes, then this might not be the show for you.
Le Frenchword is currently a trio consisting of characters identified by their color coordinated clothing: “Pink” (Japanese petite female); “Blue” (cherubic blond, male) and “Yellow” (tall bushy haired male) who interact and connect in various permutations, sometimes two ganging up against one in a variety of settings and events and all punctuated by a lot of clowning and inventive acrobatics both physical and verbal. It’s a cacophony of words, sounds, and ideas frequently frenetic to the point of being a Looney Tunes cartoon but it’s also a bit…arty. Sachie Mikawa (Pink), Ben Burris (Blue) and Carter Rodriquez (Yellow) are all trained actors with a background in clowning (think commedia del arte type clowns, and not necessarily Ringling Brothers scary clowns with make up and tiny cars…) The three work well as a unit, and individually with each character nicely shaded and individualized. Pink is both sweet yet slightly skeptical; Yellow is the buffoonish authority figure and Blue the middle child who bounces between the two and prone to being the victim of the others. All three actors do excellent work, but I have a bit of a soft spot for Ms Mikawa’s Pink and her gleefully joyful periodic cries of “Bunny Rabbits!” She’s ridiculously adorable.
So are the other actors…not to mention serious about the imaginative and playful aspects of a work that also wants to stretch your mind a bit and think about some deep things…like the creation of black holes. (funny but it ain’t pretty…) I enjoy smart theater that tries to expand your mind and entertain at the same time…but, not all of “Fancy Mud” worked for me…like all arty theater, it can wander around in the wilderness a bit and fail to make a point, or teeter over into preciousness a time or two. And, I’ll be the first to admit, this show is not for everyone. It has a pretty specialized audience. Le Frenchword’s “Fancy Mud” is not going to fill an arena near you, anytime soon. And, to be frank, it’s even kind of an odd match for Re-bar and the usual draggy/kitschy/vulgar/satirical/rock n’ roll type of theater usually found there. Le Frenchword and “Fancy Mud” seem a bit too “Art School Confidential” for the glitter and beer stained boards at the Home of Dina Martina and Brown Derby Players. I think they might find a more appropriate spiritual home at On The Boards and a more devout audience as well. If that’s your cup of theatrical tea, then I can highly recommend it and look forward to future offerings from Le Frenchword.