“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.

“Ain’t nothing like a little fear to make a paper man crumble.” It (2017)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I don’t like clowns. Never have. I trace it back to being unable to escape the ubiquitous, harlequin-gaze of shock-glam rock group KISS, leering from their album covers while my parents shopped for jazz and show tunes in record stores in the 70s. Gene Simmons and Ace Frehley are to blame for my aversion to Bozo and Ronald McDonald, apparently.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

So, by the time the first film adaptation of Stephen King’s bestselling 1986 novel It rolled around, as a 1990 ABC-TV miniseries featuring a gleefully sadistic Tim Curry in the titular role as homicidal, otherworldly “Pennywise the Dancing Clown,” this high school senior had a stockpile of around 15  years of greasepaint-smeared nightmares with which to contend. The miniseries, which also featured a Love Boat-load of d-list celebrities like Richard Thomas, Annettee O’Toole, and that Venus Fly-Trap guy from WKRP in Cincinnati, is controversial among King fans who thought it deviated too much from the source text and diluted the book’s iconic scares to adhere to the rigors of commercial TV (nearly 30! years ago).

I don’t care. It was plenty unnerving to me. I admit that the miniseries’ second half, wherein Thomas and company step to the forefront as adult versions of the bullied “Losers Club” whom Pennywise (and others) tortured as children is a drag. However, the first half is a tour de force for Curry who needs nary a pixel of CGI to let his freakiest flag fly as an unearthly creature in clown form who quite literally feeds off the terror he engenders in the small-minded small town of Derry, Maine.

I wasn’t sure I needed to ever sit through this tale again. Why do that to myself, spending another two hours watching an unhinged clown steer headlong into the coulrophobia curve that had plagued me for years. Yet, like some kind of perverse immersion therapy, I found myself in a movie theatre watching Warner Brothers’ R-rated big-screen remake.

Director Andy Muschietti brings the same gothic Brothers Grimm fractured fairy tale approach he applied to the inferior Mamaand it works here, particularly given the familiarity many viewers will already have with the material. The film plays out more like a foul-mouthed Hansel and Gretel than Nightmare on Elm Street.

There is a picaresque quality to the narrative as It traces the summer-long adventures of seven young misfits, all marginalized in different ways under the weight of living in an insular community rotting to its core. The children all are haunted by debilitating fears, made manifest through a series of bogeymen and disturbing visions, and, over time, they come to realize there is a supernatural through-line (namely Pennywise) uniting them all. Bill, the ringleader of this poignant but scrappy band has lost his little brother the year prior in an unsolved kidnapping (we viewers know that Pennywise actually dragged the poor lad down a sewer drain from the troubling but elegantly framed prologue which opens the film), and Bill’s unrelenting drive to discover the truth of his sibling’s disappearance galvanizes the group, ultimately uniting them to vanquish Pennywise (or do they?).

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I didn’t find the film particularly frightening or disturbing, which is either a sign of me aging out of my phobias or of a film that plays more like a spiritual sequel to The Goonies than a horror-fest. There are plenty of jump scares, jarring sound effects, and other conventions of the genre, and Bill Skarsgard (son of Stellan) does a perfectly fine job rendering a souped up Pennywise for the Millennial era, as informed by the apparitions of the Harry Potter films as anything in Stephen King’s canon, but none of it gave me the heebie jeebies.

In fact, Muschietti’s film plays out like an extended love letter to everything Spielberg. The potty-mouthed kids’ hard scrabble reality is played for laughs and poignancy. The late 80s setting (updated from the book’s 1950s era) allows for a number of film and pop culture references (a la Gremlins or Poltergeist) and a generally scruffier “lost generation” quality adds a heartbreaking layer of disposability to the Losers Club.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The kids themselves (Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer) are the film’s best special effect, with a refreshing authenticity, yearning, and lack of “cute child actor” pretense. They are fighting an uphill battle against an insidious enemy – the town in which they live – and anyone who has ever suffered the relentless, bullying pressures of provincialism will find themselves projecting their experiences onto these tender souls. Although, I admit I wearied after a point of the movie’s “look how crude and rude children are and isn’t it funny to hear them say really naughty things” shtick. That annoyed me from Spielberg in his trying-too-hard moments, and it still annoys me here.

The strongest Stephen King adaptations – The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, The Shining, Carrie, Misery, Dolores Claiborne – posit that the worst horrors are not supernatural at all but rather man’s inhumanity to man. That is also where It derives strength as a film. The adult residents of Derry all reflect the indifference and neglectfulness of a self-absorbed society that has turned on itself, an ourobouros eating its own tail. As one father hisses to his son in the film, “Ain’t nothing like a little fear to make a paper man crumble.” And clowns be damned, that is the worst horror of all.

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Yours truly with Jim and Rob before watching Stephen King’s It


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.

“I can do this all day!” Captain America: Civil War

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Marvel’s latest offering Captain America: Civil War made me a bit cranky. The film is perfectly fine – good-to-great, in fact. So, why do I feel bowed and broken by the 2.5 hour superhero slugfest?

Returning to this fan-favorite character – after their exceptional work raising the genre to dizzying, political potboiling heights with Captain America: The Winter Soldier director brothers Anthony and Joe Russo now take on the unenviable task of adapting a year-long Marvel Comics event (2006’s Civil War) that encompassed hundreds of characters and decades of lore and centered on a contentious feud between Captain America and Iron Man over the very civil liberties that are sliding off the rails in the present-day 2016 presidential election.

Importing this plot, that benefited extensively from comic readers’ knowledge of Marvel Comics’ 50+ years of canon, into a popcorn blockbuster cinematic universe still in its infancy is no mean feat.

More or less, the Russos succeed brilliantly. The directors deftly juggle a baker’s dozen of colorfully clad Avengers, throwing some new ones into the mix (Marvel has to set up Phase 27 of this merchandising empire, naturally!), yet somehow still retaining focus on the character (Chris Evans’ Captain America) around whom the film ostensibly revolves.

Thank heavens for THREE factors which prevent the enterprise from becoming the kind of overpopulated, unholy, confusing movie slog we tend to associate with Marvel’s Distinguished Competition: 1) the Russos balance their reverence for the comics source material with a surgical ability to excise the nerd-centric minutiae, capturing the essence of this allegorical battle for the soul of America; 2) the filmmakers smartly realize Captain America works well onscreen as a sweet-natured, noble everyman whose motivation will always be, first and foremost, that of a 98-pound weakling out-of-touch with the ways of the modern world yet not giving one damn if his desire to put down bullies of every stripe sets him at odds with current mores; and 3) Chris Evans.

Yes, Robert Downey, Jr.’s motormouth Tony Stark (Iron Man), whose oily hustle as a Tin Woodman on steroids is all sparkle and no soul, slapped the verve into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the first place. (He is dynamite, and, while his rust is starting to show, it plays well through that character’s arc as the cynical pragmatist of The Avengers.) However, my money for the heart and soul of these films is and always will be on Evans’ Captain America.

The best bits of the extended Marvel television universe (Agent Carter, later seasons of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) took root in the Captain America films, and the strongest humor and the most heart-tugging pathos have always centered around the character. Captain America: The First Avenger is as kind, humane, and inspiring a film as Marvel has produced, and Winter Soldier was a crackling spin on America’s obsession with a stalwart greatness we’ve never actually possessed.

So why am I a bit crabby this afternoon after viewing Civil War? Maybe it’s just because the pollen count is woefully high here in Michigan. Or the fact that summer is suddenly barreling down upon us, with the idea of five months of yard work less-than-thrilling.

It’s certainly not because there are any issues with Civil War‘s cast, a collection of champs as fine as they come: Scarlett Johansson (bringing Black Widow new levels of compelling internal conflict), Sebastian Stan (a haunted, hulking Winter Soldier), Anthony Mackie (his gleaming loyalty cut with a sly anxiety as Falcon), Jeremy Renner (a world-weary Hawkeye), Don Cheadle (a world-wearier War Machine), Paul Bettany (with a nice touch of metallic angst as The Vision), Paul Rudd (welcome comic relief as Ant-Man), Elizabeth Olsen (dodgy Slavic accent notwithstanding as the tortured Scarlet Witch), newcomers Chadwick Boseman and Tom Holland (a glowering, intense Black Panther and a cagey yet-wheeling Spider-Man respectively) and a whole busload of “non-supers” caught in (or causing) the cross-fire (William Hurt, Emily VanCamp, Martin Freeman, Daniel Bruhl, John Slattery, Alfre Woodward, Marisa Tomei, Hope Davis).

There is not one false note among them – which is remarkable given that many of these pros receive mere minutes (if not seconds) of screen time. They all make the most of every moment, neither chewing the scenery nor fading into the background amidst all the pyrotechnics. That is a testament as much to the Russos’ direction as it is to the respective actors’ abilities.

I guess I’m a bit sour because the Marvel Cinematic Universe has started to feel like all work, no play. (And we know what effect that had on Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Not good.) The early films were rife with a joy of discovery and a whimsy that is starting to dissipate around the edges. The evolution of this vast Marvel machinery – all the cogs and spokes and wheels and widgets from the movies to the ABC shows to the NetFlix series to the tie-in books and cartoons and merchandise – is a wonder to behold but can also seem stiflingly corporate. It’s become terribly self-serious, all gravity, no air – each Marvel film trailer now peppered with phrases like “nothing will ever be the same,” “forget everything you know,” “this is the moment everything changes.”

The unrelenting bigness seems antithetical to the “little guy taking on the world” joie de vivre that makes Captain America such a special and uniquely American creation. As Evans’ Cap often declares in these films, to comic effect under the most dire of circumstances, “I can do this all day!” Unfortunately, where the Marvel empire is concerned, that sounds like more of a menacing declaration of war than a scrappy assertion of hope.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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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.

Our Favorite Horrors — By Friends of the Blog

Thanks for the shout out, Gabriel! “Film/theatre critic Roy Sexton, who’s been a great supporter of our site, offered The Shining, Scream, and Psycho, but added ‘sometimes the best “horror” movies are those that deal with the terror of the mundane and, if that’s the case, one of the best recent examples for me would be Prisoners.'” Read more and be sure to follow his site below …

Gabriel Diego Valdez

Alien violation

by Gabriel Valdez

I recently conducted a poll regarding artists’ and filmmakers’ favorite horror movies, and the results aren’t what I expected at all. Now, this poll is about as scientific as my foot, so take it with a grain of salt, but it ended up being a tale of three very different movies:

Now, I wanted the artists themselves to define what “favorite” meant, and when pressed, I described it as “the movie you’ll berate your friends about until they sit down and watch it” and “the movie you’ll watch when you get home after a hard day and pull over yourself like a warm horror blanket.”

Playwright and critic Chris Braak, who wrote not just one, but two of the best articles of this past year, broke the question down into categories: which is the best movie, which is scariest, and which one does he like to watch the most?

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