Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Civilization (All You Can Eat) by Jason Grote, Salvage Vanguard Theatre,

Civilization (All You Can Eat) Jason Grote (poster art: Derek A. Rosenstrauch)

By Catherine Dribb

It’s strange. The concept is great, but the play is strange.

Just a warning.

The show opens with actors engaged in movement who quickly scatter when the initial dialogue begins, and the audience meets the first character, a hog, played by the talented Jude Hickey. And the rest is, well, an unveiling not only of hogs but also of porn stars, bigots, directors, hippies, self-help-book authors and (of course) actors.

It’s a strange show. But what was I expecting?

Under the direction of Jenny Larson, Salvage Vanguard Theater presents Civilization (All You Can Eat) by Jason Grote, a playwright simultaneously watching two productions of his show go up in Washington DC and, you guessed it, Austin. While I can’t speak to the D.C. show, the Austin cast is strong, rivaled only perhaps by the set designed by Connor Hopkins and the visual concept for the show, which I found compelling and effective, if under used.

From George Washington eating Twix bars to a giant man-hog strangling a runaway porn-star teenager, the show will surprise and shock you with both laughter and poignant disillusionment.

That’s not to say the writing is brilliant. It isn’t. The script appeared to be the weakest part of this production. Scenes dragged not because of boring actors or bad directing but because the dialogue isn’t engaging. Like I said, the concept is great. The writing wasn’t.

Civilization is described as a “parable of the Obama age,” where “desperation, desire, and existential dread connect the lives” of the characters. Hilarity mixes with overwhelming disillusionment as the audience empathizes with the characters trying to make a small difference in the world, to embody the change they long to see. They want to be effective and good at something, however obscure or shunned by society. They want to felt, noticed, loved, successful: these are basic longings of most of the angsty offspring of baby boomers.

Barack Obama said change was on the horizon. But is it, really, when compared to the stars staring down on us from millions of miles away? Is it, when a thousand or a million butterflies can change the course of history without any rhythm or warning? What really drives this world? What really matters?

Pertinent questions. I can’t say Civilization (All You Can Eat) adequately expressed or, for that matter, answered them (but wasn’t that the point?). But the concept was there. The disjointed chaos emphasized by the apparent links among these characters’ lives reminds us where the playwrightwanted to go, despite the fact that he never took us there.

Got a free night next weekend? Go see Civilization. It’s fresh, creative and different. And funny as hell. Disjointed, but amusing. Featuring Florinda Bryant, Michael Joplin, Heather Hanna, Griçelda Silva, Mical Trejo, Annie La Ganga and Jude Hickey. The set is brilliant, the acting is fresh and the play is short… under an hour and a half with no intermission.

Hey, George Washington… is that a Twix bar you’ve got hidden under that Declaration of Independence?

Maybe. Then again, maybe not.

Civilization (All You Can Eat). And then some.

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