Review: Cocktails at the Centre of the Earth by Simon Astor. Directed by Simon Astor. With James Weidman, Monica Wulzen, Josh Hartvigson, Erin O’Malley, Jonah Martin and Todd Hull. Now through February 25, 2012 at Annex Theatre.
Everyone’s favorite little quirky fringe theater, the Annex, starts off 2012 with a show that’s a bit different than their usual fare. Annex tends to favor genre productions ranging from science fiction to super heroes to pulp fiction and all things odd and strange. Simon Astor’s new play, “Cocktails at the Centre of the Earth” certainly falls into the genre category; it’s a Jules Verne adventure tale told with a contemporary “steampunk” aesthetic and involves a huge cast of odd ball characters on an epic adventure to five different cocktail bars located in such varied locations as a blimp, under the sea and of course, at the “centre” of the earth.
But, what’s a bit different with “Cocktails” is the dialogue. Mr. Astor has crafted a play with some crackling good dialogue, straight out of 1930’s Noel Coward play or a Cole Porter musical…there’s wisecracks, quips, puns and enough epigrams for a convention of Oscar Wilde impersonators. It’s very witty wordplay and it manages to be both smart and entertaining. The show’s a bit long and the ending seemed a bit trite, but these “Cocktails” are worth traveling to the center of Capitol Hill. It’s a frothy night of fringe theater fun.
It would be difficult to offer a synopsis of “Cocktails”…it has an enormous cast of 18 actors, some of them playing multiple roles. To keep it simple, it’s about a bunch of club hopping, upper crust hipsters decked out in steampunk fashions straight out of a Cherie Priest novel who intertwine as they bop from one chic cocktail lounge to another. There’s a young poor couple desperate to break into high society; two different competing tycoons; a gay lounge singer; a lesbian aviatrix; an anthropomorphic fox; a pair of anarchists and a clockwork man/robot. Oh, and there’s songs…and, a disaster scene…and, an angel…and, showgirls…and, a bar manager who apparently has several look-alikes. It sounds ridiculous, and it is, but due to Mr. Astor’s gift for dialogue, it all manages to work somehow.
He’s also aided by an attractive and charming cast of actors. Monica Wulzen and Katherine Karaus were both delightful as the anarchists bent on bringing down the decadent class structure of this Cocktail Society. James Weidman didn’t really have enough to do as Bunny, a translator for one of the tycoons, but he did it with his usual panache and wit. Erin O’Malley was appropriately ribald as the singing lesbian aviatrix and Josh Hartvigson did equally as well as the singing gay/bi lounge lizard. Jonah Martin had to play 5 different bar managers and managed to make every one of them interesting and unique. And, in Mr. Roboto mode, Todd Hull was especially pleasing as the adorable robotic man, Daniel Engine. His make-up could have been a bit showier, but the performance was right on the mark.
Tech wise, the shining star here is Heather Bernadette for costuming this enormous cast with some clever and creative steampunk style costumes…they almost steal the show.
However, I think Annex must have blown the budget on the costumes and cast, because the sets and lighting were both bit of a letdown. Normally the Annex manages to do a lot both set and lighting wise on their tiny budgets, but the “Cocktails” set/lights are a bit…dull. We travel to 5 different locations but you wouldn’t know it from what we’re presented. A little more variance in set design and lighting would have been helpful.
I was a tiny bit disappointed with the “Love Conquers All!” ending of “Cocktails at the Centre of the Earth” but it’s certainly appropriate for a show with its heart in the screwball comedies of the 1930’s. I just think it might have been played with a bit to go along with the inventiveness of the rest of the production. However, the rest of the clever writing and the acting manage to make this “Cocktail” one worth sipping. Fans of steampunk, queer, Cole Porter musicals in the Annex style should certainly stop by for Happy Hour.