“Smells like Marlboros and farts.” Planet Ant Theatre premieres Who Run the World

Originally published by EncoreMichigan

We live in fraught, absurdist political times. Kurt Vonnegut couldn’t even have anticipated how off-the-charts bonkers our reality show polarization has become. So, there is a timely, refreshing, and essential concept at the heart of Planet Ant’s latest original work Who Run the World – taking its title from the pop-feminist anthem  “Run the World (Girls)” by that ubiquitous purveyor of hard lemonade Beyoncé.

The show – written from what appears to be a series of free-wheeling improv exercises by director Lauren Bickers and her unrestrained cast Dyan Bailey, Suzan Jacokes, Esther Nevarez, Scott Sanford, Caitlyn Shea, and Sarah Wilder – is an interesting conceit. What will be the logical (and comically tragic) progression of our society by 2040 if we continue down this Red State/Blue State, feminist/antifeminist, extreme left/alt-right striated path?

Cast of Who Run the World (Photo by Scott Myers)

In the evening’s most effective and crispest moments, a series of video montages (created by Bailey, who used a similar technique in The Ringwald’s concurrently running production Merrily We Roll Along) bring the audience up-to-speed on world events from 2018 to 2040. America is rocked by a series of increasingly extreme political swings – President Oprah Winfrey succeeds President Donald Trump; she is, in turn, defeated by President Donald Trump, Jr.; he is ousted by President Ellen DeGeneres who is overtaken by Prezident Kid Rock (who didn’t even know he was running). A full out gender war erupts, centered around a network of Target stores, and eventually the women prove victorious driving unenlightened men into a series of, yes, “man caves.”

The gynocentric society, on the surface, seems practically perfect in every way: work/life balance, a presidential cabinet made up of bureaucrats dedicated to peace and culture and comfort, and omnipresent “dance breaks” set to the strains of Black Box’s “Everybody, Everybody.”

I admit my other favorite aspect of the show was the pre-show music/scene interludes, which all seemed to be emanating from my own personal iTunes collection. Any time I hear Madonna’s “Human Nature” during a performance (which has been … never … up-until-now), I’m a happy boy. “I’m not your b*tch. Don’t hang your sh*t on me.”

It’s unfortunate, then, that the actual show doesn’t quite live up to the promise of its surreal high concept. The performers–playing both the aforementioned cabinet members as well as a series of mulleted, flannel-wearing male denizens of the underground–should be commended for the ferocity and BIG energy with which they attack the material, but many scenes seem unrehearsed, perhaps even improvised on the spot, which clashes with the slick and professional nature of the video narrative. Further, the production seems to exist at three decibel levels: loud, louder, and loudest. For such an intimate space, this flattens the proceedings, giving the show an extended “skit-like” quality. When the cast is all present onstage, there is such a cacophony of voices and movement, it is at times difficult to discern exactly what is transpiring.

Dyan Bailey, Scott Sanford (Photo by Scott Myers)

There are many funny lines but they are lost as the actors’ articulation isn’t always up to snuff. Or clever quips are delivered with the blunt force of an anvil striking the audience on its collective head, losing the wry, satirical touch that would make them really zing. For example, one particular “man cave” is described as smelling like “Marlboros and farts.” The line made me chuckle, not from its actual delivery, but from its potential.

That is not to say that everyone involved doesn’t have their moments. Dyan Bailey has great fun channeling Kathleen Turner- meets-Donald Trump-meets-Ernst-Blofeld as societal matriarch Kameela Toriana (Department of Appearance and Diplomacy). There isn’t a piece of Jennifer Maiseloff’s underdeveloped scenery she won’t chew (her use of an exercise ball as her throne was particularly effective and amusing), and Bailey’s sheer force-of-hurricane-gale-will keeps the show moving apace.

Caitlyn Shea offers the closest thing to character progression in her shrinking violet-turned-Norma Rae Tracee McAllister (Director of Unpacking), who brings some nuance to the cartoon-like proceedings and revels in her character’s whiplash-inducing turns of personality.

The remaining cast members have some zippy moments, particularly when each goes to the “man cave” of Scott Sanford’s Addison Houser to explore their respective vices. There is an interesting narrative sequence to explore in these scenes if Planet Ant continues to develop the piece. These “vice visits” form a kind of Faustian compact – not dissimilar to Jack Nicholson’s increasingly menacing trips to commiserate with the spectral barkeep in The Shining – wherein the characters discover their true selves and the balance they’ve lost amidst political extremes. If the Who Run the World team works on refining those scenes, that sequence could provide much-needed narrative spark and character development to the play.

I may not be the right audience for what Planet Ant does. The full-house on opening night roared with laughter and approval, particularly as the show escalated further into Saturday Night Live territory or when actors riffed off-script due to a missed light cue or misplaced prop.

As an aside, when I bring my friend Lauren to a show, there seems to be an ironic bit of foreshadowing in our pre-show dinner conversation. I held forth at Green Space Café about how I just didn’t get “improv” and often found the humor therein a bit of a “stretch” for my linear sensibilities. As we watched Who Run the World, which I hadn’t realized was improv-based until I read the program immediately prior (shame on me), it reminded me that, at least for this viewer, I prefer a tightly rehearsed show with clear and nuanced character delineation, levels, and timing. I offer this to say that if you are a fan of improv, you might really dig Who Run the World … and I’m just a crabby fuddy duddy.

That said, I suspect there is a really sharp 45-minute piece buried somewhere in Who Run the World’s two-hour run time. With some Draconian editing, the show could be just the tonic our troubled times need. I, for one, crave a new Crucible, Children’s Hour, or, hell, Book of Mormon for this MAGA vs. #MeToo cultural dumpster fire in which we are currently living. Who Run the World ain’t it yet … but with some work, it might be.

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Lauren Crocker, Roy Sexton – opening night of Who Run the World

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“Thought I belonged to a different tribe.” Madonna’s “Rebel Heart”

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It’s rather remarkable to me that in however many years I’ve been writing this blog Madonna hasn’t been my subject matter once.

She and her music and her hijinks have been a constant in my life since my awkwardly painful junior high years.

I’ve voraciously consumed every album, video, single, remix, film (heaven help me), interview, performance, and gossipy tidbit in her storied career.

I’ve ridden the crest of every ill-spirited media wave announcing her imminent cultural demise, her death spiral into irrelevancy, or her controversy-fueled self-immolation.

And, yet, to paraphrase a classic Sondheim tune, popularized by the late, great Elaine Stritch, she’s still here.

Speaking of Sondheim, it was the bizarre confluence of that Broadway vet’s musical output and the white-hot light of Madonna at the peak of her fame in the summer of 1990, working on the Disney-produced, Warren Beatty-directed comic book film Dick Tracy, that cemented my love for the self-professed “Material Girl.”

To be honest, her first two albums Madonna and Like a Virgin set my teeth on edge in their moment (possibly because they were the dog-eared soundtrack for every snooty-pants kid at Memorial Park, a “magnet school” for gifted … and rich … kids, a place where the wheels temporarily fell off my self-esteem wagon). True Blue (her third offering, not counting soundtracks and remix compilations) was a slight improvement (we also moved to another town!), perhaps due to the influence of equally combustible but super-talented Sean Penn in her artistic and personal life. With Like a Prayer, she started to pique my interest as Madonna really began to mine the formula of agnosticism, social critique, semi-feminist moxie, and soaring dance-pop melodies that ignited my nascent musical imagination.

But it was the Dick Tracy pseudo-soundtrack I’m Breathless, a forgotten corner of Madonna’s discography (save for its inescapable throbbing uber-hit “Vogue”), that made me a fan for life. I was in Japan for a summer study abroad program sponsored by the U.S. Senate/Japanese government, back when Japan was, well, China to us, threatened as we were by their economic might. The powers-that-be threw a bunch of high school kids on a plane, and, voila, world peace?

I didn’t have a lot of spending money, no internet (obviously) nor smart phones (more obviously), so the touchstone that eased any homesick heartache was an I’m Breathless cassette tape I bought from a Japanese street vendor (I think it was legal) with all the lyrics written in kanji. (In fact, I remain a little foggy on the actual words to “Hanky Panky” to this day). I burned through two Walkmen and a host of AA batteries listening to that album, never skipping a track, but absorbing it all straight through over and over.

After that, Madonna could do no wrong (by me). My self-important, superficially-socially-conscious college days were spent torturing my roommates with repeated listens to Erotica and Bedtime Stories (the campy/naughty “I’m not your b*tch; don’t hang your sh*t on me” era – take that, smart aleck-y David Letterman), and graduate school saw Madge and me mellow a bit as she took on show tunes in the Golden Globe-winning Evita and some mystical new mommy spiritual techno hoo-ha in Ray of Light.

She (and the world) discovered Sacha Baron Cohen and the acid rock/hip hop joys of ten gallon cowboy hats with Music (“Don’t Tell Me” remains a musical/videographic highlight), and, as the 20th Century devolved in the post 9/11 chaos of the “aughts,” Madonna sported a beret and sang political rants about … pilates (?) in American Life, donned a purple/pink leotard for some Confessions on the Dance Floor, suckered us in with some poptacular Hard Candy, and left me woozy from too much MDNA.

Which brings us to the latest offering from our imperious Queen of Pop: Rebel Heart. Much has been made of the disastrous (or canny?) PR debacle leading up to her 13th (!) studio album’s release (she doesn’t count I’m Breathless in that tally for some reason – BIG mistake. HUGE.). There were numerous leaks of tracks in various degrees of completion; Madonna got a little zany with the Instagram; she had a wardrobe malfunction (no, Ms. Jackson, not that kind) that involved a ridiculously long cape and an even ridiculously longer flight of stairs; and so on. Yet, here we are at the finish line, with a more-or-less completed album, filled to the brim (19 tracks on the deluxe edition and 25 on the super-deluxe!) with potential hits (and misses).

By the way, let’s not forget Madge invented strategic “wardrobe malfunction,” in a now iconic performance from the inaugural MTV Video Music Awards, when she lost a shoe or something and, consequently, started writhing around on the stage in a white wedding dress while warbling “Like a Virgin.” 

So, with this exhaustively self-indulgent preamble ended, how is the Rebel Heart album? It’s good, and it may even be classic, but like all Madonna albums, it is wildly uneven with some spectacularly transporting hooks and melodies, a healthy dose of sass, and some head smackingly cringe-worthy lyrics. What many critics now hail as a masterpiece (Erotica) was in its day (1992!) similarly received – an overlong mish-mash of dance, pop, balladry that ran the gamut from sincerely poignant to sincerely filthy to sincerely odd. Rebel Heart feels like a bookend to that now legendary compilation.

Rebel Heart‘s strongest moments (consistent with Madonna’s track record) marry heartache, petulance, and swirling disco, from the soaring, gospel-tinged first single “Living for Love” to upcoming single “Ghosttown,” a crunchy, ominous, totally dance-able ode to isolation/devotion. The album’s sillier moments work for me as well, including the anti-misogyny, reggae-lite screed “Unapologetic B*tch” to the similarly titled yet totally antithetical party anthem “B*tch, I’m Madonna” (with a great guest rhyme from most-likely-to-inherit-the-crown Nicki Minaj).

Madonna crashes the gates again of her own sexual minstrelsy with a clutch of tracks that veer from the obscene to the perverse (“Body Shop,” “Holy Water,” “Best Night,” and the funniest of the bunch “S.E.X.”). At first listen to these, I wanted to jump out of my skin as there is minimal effort for metaphor but maximal effort for shock and awe. Yet, as I gave them a second listen (still not liking them much), I realized that Madonna’s tongue was firmly in cheek (sounds kinda like one of her lyrics, actually), so these four may grow on me … like a fungus.

Gone are any aspirations to play in the bass-thumping pop sandbox of the Lady Gagas or Katy Perrys of the world (though I think those critiques have been greatly overstated) as Madonna happily reintroduces ballads to her repertoire, standouts being the shimmering “Messiah” (where religion becomes a clever proxy for humanistic self-actualization), caustic “HeartBreakCity” (I do love when Madonna gives two-timing, preening dudes a dressing down), and the capstone strum-and-drang of title track “Rebel Heart.”

It is this last number (inexplicably only available on the deluxe edition) that makes the entire nearly 90 minute running time worth the journey. With this ditty, Madonna offers arguably her most revelatory (and witty) lyrics – Madonna the songwriter is often overshadowed by Madonna the showman, but this track wraps the thesis of Rebel Heart (the album) with a heart-rending bow:

I lived my life like a masochist
Hearing my father say: “Told you so, told you so”
“Why can’t you be like the other girls?”
I said: “Oh no, that’s not me and I don’t think that it’ll ever be”

Thought I belonged to a different tribe
Walking alone
Never satisfied, satisfied
Tried to fit in but it wasn’t me,
I said: “Oh no, I want more, that’s not what I’m looking for”

 

And you’ve succeeded, Ms. Ciccone. Keep up the fine work, Madonna – looking forward to keeping you as the primary soundtrack to my ever-evolving life …
____________________________

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.