By Rick Brown, NakedSunfish.com
I realized early on, as a child, that I had a relative problem with authority. A lot of us kids growing up outside Cleveland did for some reason. And I learned … sometimes the hard way … that the best way to deal with blind authority is to mock it … mercilessly. But keep in mind this only works if you are FUNNY! VERY FUNNY!
Apparently no one knows this better than Julie Klein. Her direction of Reefer Madness is so over the top, so campy, that her “mockumentary” is like a parody of a parody of a parody. If ignorance really is bliss (and here it is), then her avoidance of the 1936 movie and 1998 musical is genius. Ms. Klein’s touch gives the production a freewheeling, loosey goosey, childlike anarchy. It’s a delight to witness.
I have seen the film, although I do not recall much of it. I probably went to a midnight showing and was … uh … half asleep. Yeah! That’s it … half asleep! Anyway, what I do remember is the heavy handedness of it all. Prohibition had just ended and I guess the authority figures had to switch vices by 1936. Still, those of us growing up in the 50’s got pretty used to such scare tactics, what between Dragnet’s (50’s TV show) Jack Webb narrated anti-communism flicks and the scare tactics of Driver’s Education films.
So given today’s political climate Shadowbox Live’s Reefer Madness is perfect social commentary.
The script and lyrics are written by Kevin Murphy and music composed by Dan Studney. I find the dialogue effective enough, but musically it’s a mixed bag. Not really rock ‘n roll, not specifically musical theater, it’s fortunate the singers … buoyed up by the crack band … here rise above the material. And Katy Psenicka’s dynamic choreography is so visually stimulating, making the anachronisms irrelevant. Charming even.
It’s like “Up With People” meets “Easy Rider”… at a sock hop. And it works wonderfully.
Authority figures (disguised as “lecturers”) Tom Cardinal and Mary Randle are superb ringmasters for what is a community theater presentation of a young couple whose lives are tragically altered when they stumble into the reefer den. Jimmy Harper (Jamie Barrow) and Mary Lane (Renee Horton) are young and in love, fancying themselves as Romeo and Juliet. Trouble is they don’t know the ending of Shakespeare’s tragedy and their fate is sealed similarly. Mr. Barrow and Ms. Horton give superb performances. The range of their talents is obvious, first being wet behind the ears youngsters who eventually take a toke and turn into sex, drug crazed potheads.
Of course all misdirected authority is rife with untruths. And here the ridicule is delicious. From Edelyn Parker’s delightful Mrs. Poppy raves up the soda shop in a delightfully squeaky-clean (wink, wink) dance routine, to Donathin Frye’s severely sinister Jack, who keeps everyone in line in his reefer den. Jack’s violent nature, apparently brought on by his “addiction” to marijuana, is dark. And the violence against women is uncomfortable to watch. But these are important lies, dramatically underscored by performances by Nikki Fagin (Sally), Andy Ankrom (Ralph) and a tortured Mae (Leah Haviland is terrific here).
There is a car chase scene that I will not elaborate on. Suffice it to say the staging is childlike and brilliant. I could tell audience members were having childhood amusement park flashbacks.
Speaking of flashbacks, another important lie in the authority scare is hallucinations. Of course marijuana is not a hallucinogen. So the visions these stoned out character have are psychedelically awesome. Tom Cardinal riffs FDR in a wheelchair. Uncle Sam and the Statue of Liberty appear. Billy DePetro alone plays everyone from Zombie Boy to Goatman. But the beauty is in the blasphemy. And Mr. DePetro’s depiction of Jesus … especially in a scene surrounded by angels … is worth an eternity in Purgatory.
Shadowbox Live’s Reefer Madness is a splendid showcase. The troupe really knows how to command the stage in ensemble. This performance is a sum of all its parts. Ms. Psenicka’s choreography and staging, Kaitlin Descutner’s costume design, the music, the actors, everyone behind the scenes, fueled by Julie Klein’s lovably childlike smart-ass direction … it all comes together in a smorgasbord of hilarious campiness. By the finale the show’s absurdity is the ultimate contact high. And MAN! (Before there was “DUDE” there was “MAN”) that makes for the grooviest, most far out “Mockumentary” … ever …MAN!