A classic for the mob

Tearjerker! works best when the audience pitches in--literally

When you hear theater snobs hold forth on the civilized, specialized virtues of live performance, they often invoke that art form's timelessness. Live performance, or at least some form of oratory before an attentive crowd, probably predates the advent of recorded history. Some form of it has appeared in virtually every epoch of every civilization, reflecting and sometimes challenging the times that create it.

The big difference today: Audiences didn't drive to the Globe of Elizabethan England or the Dionysian festivals of ancient Greece in their new Saabs, wearing their new virgin wool knit sweaters and holding forth in the will call line about international trade and other topics they saw discussed on The Jim Lehrer Hour. They didn't sip champagne and munch pastry at intermission, raving over the psychological insight and ironic gravity so-and-so actor brought to that last speech about bourgeois hypocrisy.

On the contrary, based on what we've gathered from accounts, theater audiences throughout the centuries have more accurately resembled the patrons of the Sportatorium or those monster-truck rallies that come through Reunion every couple of years. Except, the last time I heard, even wrestling fans aren't allowed to hurl things into the ring. It was not uncommon for ticket buyers wasted on mead in pre-Enlightenment Europe to throw food, utensils, stones, and vociferous obscenities at stage performers in mid-speech. This was one of the reasons why, up until the late 19th century, acting was largely considered a dangerous, degraded business. If an actor couldn't keep the mob captivated with the persuasive power of his or her voice and movements, said thespian could at least be counted on to relieve workday frustrations by serving as an object of audience scorn. A live performer, then, was a potential doormat to even the scummiest scum with enough shillings in his greasy palm to gain admission.

Pocket Sandwich Theatre, one of a handful of small troupes in town to reliably turn a profit but not receive much critical attention, is one of the few local purveyors of what might be called "classic theater." The Pocket's local actors, and the local playwrights they tap to write original scripts, specialize in the art of exaggerated, bludgeoning, overenthusiastic emotion, which is to say the heart of acting before Stanislavski. Which is to say the entire history of acting up until about five minutes ago, in the relative terms of a scale of millennia.

Deliberately bad performances are often labeled "camp" nowadays, but many cultural critics argue that ham-fisted ineptitude doesn't qualify as camp if the artists know it's bad and are trying to make a point. The Pocket Sandwich performers know they're overacting, of course, but their point is more than just to make you laugh and spoof the sci-fi/horror, beach party, and three-hankie movies the plays are often modeled on. They also specialize in audience-interactive shows that cozy up to the rabid mob in all of us--ticket buyers are supplied with a basket of popcorn, which they're encouraged to throw at characters they don't like. Before the show, they're led through a round of boos, sighs, and cheers to offer at appropriate lines or actions.

The Pocket's latest "popcorn-throwing melodrama" is the story of a virtuous young woman who goes from spinster to nun to nanny to glamorous showgirl. Embroider this story with high-flown language, and you'd have a Thomas Hardy novel (well, except for the glamorous showgirl part). Toss in a trail-mix of puns, sarcastic asides, prop-chewing speeches, and, of course, some heat-expanded corn kernels, and you have Tearjerker! Or, The Mambo Girl, local playwright Steve Lovett's spoof of the virgin-whore dichotomy in South American movies from the '30s and '40s.

The biggest problem with the Pocket's popcorn shows is that their success depends almost entirely on the mood of the audience. Maybe it speaks highly of our much-maligned late-20th-century manners, but ticket buyers are often shy about hooting, hollering, and throwing stuff at characters in a play; the actors wind up working the melodrama thing too hard, and the show becomes grating. The flip side is, you get a tableful or more of (usually drunk) morons who don't have any restraint, and they wind up ruining the performances and everybody else's evening with their strident noisemaking. Every night is a spin of the bullet chamber.

The audience at the Thursday night performance of Tearjerker! I attended leaned toward the hesitant side. Luckily, though, after a first half in which the actors seemed to be floating aimlessly across the stage looking for a friendly port, they stopped relying on reactions behind the footlights and took the reins themselves. Tearjerker! became so adeptly silly as its determined heroine climbed the showbiz ladder, the tables were roused from their inertia, and the house erupted in regular unisons of laughter, cheering, and booing. If that's not your idea of a satisfying night at the theater, consider yourself warned.

As directed by Scott Latham (who just happens to be an Observer production artist and to whom I absolutely do not owe money, I swear), Steve Lovett's script veers away from the "look at us! we suck!" shtick into more demented (and gloriously distasteful) lunacy, like when a wheelchair-bound woman attempts a striptease act or a mother superior suffers very noisy intestinal distress from the convent's steady diet of cabbage. Be patient through the uninspired opening scenes, and you'll be rewarded with more of these moments and an increasing comic confidence among most of the actors.

Things really start cooking when our heroine, a shy heiress named Paula (Amy Askins), flees the convent and becomes a tutor in the wealthy household de Lagrimas, headed by rock-jawed Aryan Don Donnie (Jim Hopkins) and his shrewish, disabled wife Dona (Alice Montgomery). The saintly Paula sees reflections of her relationship with her own slutty sister in her two charges--man-hungry Veronica (Holly Jenkins) and sweet but temperamental Chickleta (a hilarious Jennifer Rice), whose brattiness has a homicidal glee.

By the time Paula is transformed into Soledad de Mundo, the most successful showgirl in South America, she's had to climb over all manner of subplots dropped in her path, including faithless lovers, adultery temptations, and a homicide charge. It's difficult to say how much you'll enjoy Tearjerker!, because the effectiveness of any given performance will be fundamentally influenced by audience interaction. But the cast proved more resourceful than I expected, picking up speed after a few dull scenes and bringing the audience with them sidecar.

Tearjerker! Or, the Mambo Girl runs through February 14. Call (214) 821-1860.

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