Friday, July 31, 2009

The Critical Imperative

My editor evidently decided that the review I submitted this week was too harsh to, or did not sufficiently coddle, the embarrassment I recently witnessed at the Boxcar Theatre.  Maybe a gay newspaper is obligated to praise any rock-musical about male prostitution that uses trite experimental theatre gimmicks?  At any rate, for lack of a better medium, the review is published below, so that the 3 people who read this can feel justified in not joining me for this production.


If you’re going to a show at the Boxcar Theatre, it’s usually a relief when you arrive.  Located on Natoma Avenue, in SoMA, the theater is not advisedly approached by foot at night, particularly when you are a lone female.  But Rent Boy Ave: A Fairy’s Tale, the theater’s new “urban rock musical,” offers audiences no escape from Boxcar’s neighborhood—or any sort of escape at all.  Director Wolfgang Wachalovsky’s set, “a piece of shit street in some city otherwise known as the world’s trash can,” emerges organically from the theater’s surroundings:  Graffiti covers every available surface of the black box playing space.  Scaffolding on wheels, the only set piece, creates a world of fragmentation and transience.  And the ensemble is a part of this set from the moment the audience walks in.  As the same characters they will perform later, the actors beg for money, harass each other (and the audience) and struggle for status.  All in all, the pre-show promises a thoughtful piece of experimental theatre; unfortunately, once Rent Boy Ave begins, the directorial choices become amateurish and arbitrary, the acting apathetic and demonstrative, and whether the clichéd writing and unmelodic music are entirely to blame is anyone’s guess.

The musical follows David (Bobby Bryce), who moves from Kansas to a bad neighborhood in an unnamed city.  There he meets Jackie (Danielle Medeiros) and Mark (Bradley Mena), who introduce him to a life of prostitution.  Supposedly, Mark only sells himself to men for financial reasons, but his immediately evident attraction to David suggests otherwise.  David’s fall from innocence and David and Mark’s relationship ostensibly constitute the play’s two plot threads, but in each case the story’s over before it begins—but perhaps the tale is so obvious that we can’t blame the actors for wearing it on their faces.

Even as a snapshot of a dark, ignored underworld—as suggested by many purely descriptive song lyrics—"I’m a punk rock slot,” “We’re the freaks of the streets”—Rent Boy Ave is so overrun with clichés that audiences would get a more interesting picture of a tough neighborhood by stepping outside the theater.  In some cases, rather than endow his characters with original, specific backgrounds, playwright Nick Olivero “borrows” lines from other works:  The Pimp’s line, “Does the word ‘bitch’ appear on my forehead?” blatantly plagiarizes Samuel L. Jackson's infamous line in Pulp Fiction.

Generally, the acting is uncompelling, and the singing is harsh at best and range-stretching at worst.  Rare exceptions include Anthony Rollins-Mullens as the Pimp and Erica Richardson as Trashcan Sally.  Rollins-Mullens’s movements are economical and his voice sultry; he is a pleasure to watch and listen to, even if his character never gets developed.  But the show’s outstanding performance goes to Richardson.  Hostile and fearful, odious and piteous, Richardson’s homeless woman need hardly say anything, so fully does the actress embody the “type” her character must represent.  Perhaps the most egregious in a performance already filled with blunders is the little time we have with this ensemble character.

With lighting cues that distract from the action of the play, choreography that does little more than fill space, and staging that simply rotates the ensemble through the stage (so that, like a high school musical, everyone gets a decent amount of face time), Wachalovsky fails to enliven Olivero’s tired script.  “This is the this,” repeat the characters in gratuitous refrain.  Next time, some antecedents, please.

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