Fantastic Z’s BAD PANDA With Richard Sean Glen and Helen Martin.
Review: BAD PANDA by Megan Gogerty. Produced by Fantastic Z. Directed by Kate Huisentruit. Choreography by Anthony Pallozzi. Scenic Design by Caitlin McCown. Costume Design by Eleanor Withrow. Prop Design by Emma Ambacher. Lighting Design by Keny Dutton. Sound Design by Erik Siegling. With Richard Sean Glen, Helen Martin, Michael Ryan Blackwood. Now through April 8, 2017 at Theatre Off Jackson.
Fantastic. Z is a little queer theater group that has in the past mainly produced crazy, larger than life campy spectacles like “Psycho Beach Party”. So, it’s a bit surprising to see them head down a different path this year with shows that are a bit less crazy but still in the LGBTQ spectrum of theater. They just opened their spring show and it’s BAD PANDA by Megan Gogerty and unlike previous Fantastic Z mega productions with huge noisy casts, this is a simple three hander that’s considerably more gentle in tone than a Charles Busch farce.
“Bad Panda” is about, not so surprisingly…pandas. A pair of them to be precise, one male and one female and they’re convinced they’re the last pandas on earth and it’s up to them to reproduce in order to save their species. The only problem: Marion the female is far more enthused about this prospect than Gwo Gwo the male panda who frankly seems terrified at the idea of fatherhood or even mating with Marion. As the play begins, they make a few furtive attempts to “do the deed” but without much success. The pair live in an odd nature preserve overseen by mysterious Others…is it a zoo or something more sinister?
Things are complicated by the introduction of a third character, the conniving crocodile Chester who isn’t so much a fierce amphibian to be feared but more of a Fierce Gay Creature who seems to be more interested in crushing on rather than crunching on Gwo Gwo….who quickly discovers that he too prefers “wrasslin'” with Chester rather than mating with Marion.
As Chester and Gwo Gwo bond, Marion grows frustrated with her lack of progress in getting pregnant and after she discovers that Gwo Gwo is more invested in being a crocodile with Chester than making a baby with her, she seeks the attention of “The Others” who run their nature preserve and she promptly vanishes for a time only to reappear a short time later…with a baby panda. Marion seems content to be a single mom while Gwo Gwo happily explores life as a “Crocodile” but Chester discovers he yearns to have a baby of his own. As Marion becomes overwhelmed by single motherhood, the male couple quarrel over their respective stances on Fatherhood and it’s not until a surprising revelation is made about their baby, that all their differences can be resolved.
OK, I’m aware this all sounds a bit “cuter than thou”….actors playing adorable animals in a twee allegory about gayness and parenthood but….it all works. Megan Gogerty’s script is clever and manages to avoid all the pitfalls of many allegorical tales. It’s a sly little fable with fully rounded characters and a well paced plot. I do think it’s a tad longer than it needs to be…the story does run out of steam before the play wraps up. It was played as two acts and in reality I think the play should have been a taunt 70/80 minute single act but it’s not so long as to be too problematic.
It’s also aided by assured staging from director Kate Huisentruit and some stylish low budget design work from Caitlin McCown (scenic design) and Eleanor Withrow’s simple but very effective costumes that suggest the animals being portrayed rather than than overwhelming the actors with overly complicated costume pieces. Emma Ambacher has also come up with some clever and very essential props for this production.
All three actors are great…playing animals (or children) is actually tricky to pull off and this kind of material can easily fall into the land of overplayed and heavy handed but all three are very good at balancing the charm of it all with a certain well grounded gravitas. Helen Martin’s feisty Marion nicely balances the character’s maternal side with her independent side. She’s nurturing one minute and tough as hell the next. Richard Sean Glen’s Gwo Gwo has the greatest character arc as he goes from wide-eyed and innocent to assuredly worldly by the end; it’s an endearingly sweet performance. And, Michael Ryan Blackwood’s slyly fey crocodile Chester is especially appealing as his character puts up a tough facade that hides a surprisingly tender interior life. They make for a winning trio of performances.
“Bad Panda” is a winning, sly charmer that’s well acted, designed and directed. It’s quiet gentility is a welcome change from Fantastic Z’s previous noisy campish productions. It’s very much worth checking out.
Review: DAS ENDE by Duane Kelly. Produced by Red Rover Theatre Company. Directed by Kelly McMahon. Scenic Design by Brandon Estrella. Lighting Design by Mary Heffernan. Sound Design by Lindsey Morck. With Gary Taylor, Patty Bonnell, Adrian Cerrato, Emily Robinson, Chris Macdonald, Paul Sobrie. Now through April 2, 2017 at 18th & Union: An Arts Space.
There are no cute animals in DAS ENDE (German for “The End”) a play by local playwright Duane Kelly and produced by his Red Rover Theatre Company at the 18th & Union theater space. Instead we have ghosts, stolen musical scores and operas of both the “German” and “Soap” variety to contend with and it all swirls around Richard Wagner and his masterwork, “The Ring Trilogy” and how it impacts the lives of one American family.
The play opens with the rapidly failing Grampa revealing to his adult grand daughter Mattie that he’s convinced their family is cursed because as a young soldier stationed in Bayreuth Germany after World War II he stole a valuable score from Richard Wagner’s final opera in his Ring Trilogy of operas. It’s an alternate ending and it’s obviously a very valuable historic and artistic document and it’s Grampa’s wish than Mattie and her twin brother Perry find a way to return the material to the Wagner Archive in Bayreuth without it being revealed that he was the one who had stolen it. He leaves a sum of money in his will that will enable them to travel to Germany during the annual Ring Festival so they can make this happen.
Grampa does die and somehow it seems he might be right about their family curse. Meanwhile, the Ghost of Richard Wagner himself is keen to get HIS ghostly hands on this score but he wishes to destroy it since he now considers this alternative ending to the Ring to be inferior to the one now in existence. Wagner is allowed to visit Earth for a specified period of time and is assigned the first available body to inhabit to enable his physical presence on Earth. (Fortunately for us, he’s given the body of a tall, young attractive Latinx man to embody instead of his own short and not particularly visually pleasing visage he actually had…)
Wagner visits Mattie under his hunky disguise and fake name to try and convince her to hand over the score but she resists and continues with her plans to return the document to Germany. And, to complicate matters, “Alberich” the fictional character/villain from The Ring Trilogy and the only “god” from the opera to survive at the end of the work is now trapped in a limbo world and is also keen to get his hands on “Das Ende” to finally end his purgatory…in this alternative ending, his character dies along with all the other gods in the climatic “Götterdämmerung” that concludes the work.
Eventually, all the characters including Wagner, Mattie, her brother and her opera singing sister in law Arden all make it to Bayreuth where Mattie must convince Otto, the hunky single administrator of the Wagner Archive to give her access while avoiding the machinations of Wagner and Alberich. Will she succeed in ending the curse and hopefully snatching herself a new boyfriend in the process? Will Alberich escape Purgatory? Will Ghost Wagner create chaos and confusion as he seeks to thwart her goal?
Yes, “Das Ende” is a tad soapy and at times it does feel a bit like a very Wagner specific Lifetime TV Movie of the Week as unlikely as that sounds. There are some gaping holes in the plot and it does feel contrived. Still, it’s not boring and the fanciful plot is involving and just like an actual soap opera, you do feel compelled to find out what’s going to happen next, as unlikely as it all might be. And, isn’t that the very reason why we enjoy these kinds of stories? Duane Kelly’s plotting here is a bit messy but it is a FUN kind of messy. Who doesn’t enjoy a shaggy ghost story?
And, you have to give this play props for making it all intelligible to non-Wagnerian fans. I’m only vaguely aware of the plot of The Ring Trilogy yet Mr. Kelly’s use of the characters/plot of the Ring and of aspects of Richard Wagner’s life is all very clear and easy to understand. You don’t have to be a Wagnerian to understand/enjoy “Das Ende”…though it couldn’t hurt either.
It’s a simply staged production with a layered series of sets from front of the staging area to the back. There’s a bit too much fussing with slight changes to the set in between scenes that’s not really very necessary to the production and actually distracts a bit at times.
The cast is fine with Gary Taylor as the chief standout in dual roles as dying Grampa in the opening scene then later as the cunning and complaining Alberich during the rest of the play. He adds a sense of larger than life, Wagnerian charm to the proceedings. And, Emily Robinson astounds as the opera singing sister in law who bursts into snatches of opera at times. She’s got a big voice and it’s nice to actually hear some Wagner in a show ABOUT Wagner.
“Das Ende” isn’t the best Wagnerian ghost story ever told but it has its shaggy charms…and, even an allusion or two to that damned “Star Wars” which ripped it off…