THEATER: ‘Mad Gravity’ satirizes a world that really is ‘all a stage’

Apr 22, 2015 at 3:03 pm
Mad Gravity
Mad Gravity Photo by William Missouri Downs

When Shakespeare wrote, “All the world’s a stage,” he meant it as metaphor. In our time, the metaphor has become a reality. All the world is a stage – or a screen, or a performance space.

We live in a world where Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Periscope, Youtube and surveillance cameras can turn everything we do – whether abusing a tow company cashier, pouring a bucket of ice over our heads, or simply being part of an audience at an event where someone else is performing – instantly into a kind of performance.

It’s a world of selfies, likes and +1s.

And when the family at the center of William Missouri Downs’ “Mad Gravity,” which made its local premiere last week at the Bard’s Town Theatre, takes things to their logical extreme, the results make for a riotous night of screwball comedy.

Husband Archie (Scot Atkinson, who also directed the production) is a performance artist “enjoying an extended arts grant from the government.” Not from the National Endowment of the Arts, you understand, but in the form of unemployment compensation. Wife Eudora (Amy Steiger) is a death counselor, who coaches people through the transition – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance – and sometimes why.

On the weird couples scale, these folks are in Gomez and Morticia territory. Archie wears a spectacular mustache, and once gave a Dadaist-inspired commencement speech that involved simulating death by plague. Eudora is a philosophical type who argues that “The great drama of humanity is the struggle against the ruthless anonymity of life.” We need an audience, she says, to validate the significance of our lives. They considered installing a webcam, but a webcam doesn’t offer the direct thrill of having a live audience, so Archie and Eudora went one better. They installed a living room theater with a light board and plenty of seating, where paying customers can sit and watch a family in its natural state? And yes, by the way, there’s a bedroom theater, too (though we never see it).

For Archie, Eudora and their daughter Dakota (Casandre Medel) this is an inevitable improvement on reality TV; it’s reality theater.

When dinner guests arrive, though, things get a bit touchy. Dr. Joe (Joe Beamer) is a dentist. Mary (Melissa Kenney Shepherd) is a full-time mom. And they’ve been invited to discuss a looming problem: it seems their son has impregnated 16-year-old Dakota, and the young couple wants to get married.

And before their arrival, Dr. Joe and Mary had no idea that they’d be taking part in an altogether novel kind of “dinner theater.”

As if this setup weren’t marvelous enough, a news flash announces that within the hour either a comet or an asteroid is on a near-collision course with earth – and NASA isn’t sure whether it will pass or crash.

The script is exquisitely smart, with brilliant comic riffs on Dadaism, religion, domestic relations and personal morality (after all, if the world is actually going to end in an hour, figuring out whether looting, praying or having sex is the best way to validate the significance of life becomes a question of some urgency).

But this production is also marked by some great performances. Dr. Joe, we learn, once wanted to become an actor (in fact, says Joe, a high percentage of all dentists harbor a secret wish to have careers in the arts). And once he gets over the initial shock of seeing the audience, Beamer plays him in a perfectly honed performance full of self-conscious poses and grandiloquent declamations, all infused with a fine mix of bashful, drunken vulnerability. Shepherd plays Mary as a control freak writing with anger; and Atkinson, Steiger and Medel play their parts with all the earnest sincerity you would expect to find in, say, a revival of “You Can’t Take It With You.” And connoisseurs of fight scenes will love the punches, jabs and twisted-tangles fight that choreographer Jake Beamer sets up in one great physical sequence.

Of the short second act, I won’t say much – except that it too, is a marvelous piece of comedy.

‘Mad Gravity’ Through April 26 The Bard’s Town Theatre 1801 Bardstown Road, 749-5275 thebardstowntheatre.org

‘dirty sexy derby play’ Another kind of apocalypse looms over Brian Walker’s “dirty sexy derby play,” a 2008 work that’s become something of a Louisville classic. Set on Derby weekend 1974 (just a few weeks after a tornado cut an enormous swath of destruction across the city), it’s a contemporary morality tale (well, morality as of the 1970s, anyway) about a vengeful “key party” that plays as sex comedy with a bitter edge (recommended for mature audiences, owing to language and brief nudity). Darren McGee directs this revival in a Louisville Repertory Company production that runs through April 26 in the Kentucky Center for the Arts MeX Theatre, 501 W. Main Street. Tickets available at the Kentucky Center for the Arts Box Office, 584-7777; kentuckycenter.org. •