By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The fourth wall springs a leak in two shows now playing Dallas stages. At Risk Theater Initiative's Slaughterhouse Five, a character resembling Kurt Vonnegut Jr., (played by T. A. Taylor) sits facing the audience to narrate his time-hopping memoir of World War II. In Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding, a Dallas Summer Musicals production at the Weisfeld Center, the audience isn't allowed to remain passive; they're in the thing for more than two hours.
So which would you rather be part of—the bombing of Dresden or a loud, hilarious Italian wedding that includes a spaghetti dinner, a striptease, the chicken dance and a fistfight?
Toss the bouquet to Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding, which invites the audience into the act even before the "show" begins. In the lobby of the Weisfeld Center—a domed rental hall south of downtown that was once a Christian Science church—members of the wedding party mix with the crowd waiting to enter the theater. Ricky DeMarco, the goombah videographer (played by David Ristuccia), is the one in the sparkly leopard-print sport coat, hair gelled up in Gotti grandson spikes. The big usher is Dominic (Bryan Hardy), a lumbering box of rocks who had a thing going with dainty Sister Albert Maria (Jana McGill) before she decided to marry Jesus.
Step out to the front steps to sneak a smoke before being seated, only to see a couple of younger "groomsmen" passing a (fake) joint around. Visit the ladies' room and the bride might be there, wailing about her controlling mama (Sooze Johnson). This is 360-degree entertainment. In the pews during the 30-minute nuptials or downstairs at the two-hour seated dinner and reception, wherever you look, at least one of the 25 characters is doing something that at a real family gathering would be grounds for deletion from the Christmas list.
Tony and Tina first spoke their vows (he fumbles and pledges his "fertility") 20 years ago this month in the Greenwich Village production that went on to run 11 years at St. John's Church on Christopher Street. It eventually moved uptown to the Edison Hotel, where it's still playing. Part tongue-in-cheek statement on the painfully mundane rituals of most American weddings, part dangerously unscripted play, Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding was at the vanguard of immersive theater pieces. After it came The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which plucks "competitors" from their seats for a spell-off. More recently in New York City, the shows De La Guarda, Fuerzabruta and Etiquette have forced actors and theatergoers to intermingle, often in uncomfortably close proximity.
The idea behind Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding was to create a living cartoon in which the audience aids the actors in creating a show. Except for scripted sections at the wedding ceremony and toward the end of the reception, no two performances are alike. It all depends on how game theatergoers are to interact with the characters. Sometimes, especially after the cash bar opens, it's hard to tell who's playing a role and who's not.
The Dallas production casts New York actors in the four leads. Scott Belucchi and Denise Fennell have married each other as Tony Nunzio and Tina Vitale for a decade. He swaggers like a two-bit mook. She honks like a scalded goose. And the drunker their characters get, the funnier they are.
Richard LaRosa is gelatinous wedding singer Donny Dulce. Notice how he changes outfits between songs, each get-up tighter and uglier than the one before. Dennis O'Neill plays Vinnie Black, rug-wearing caterer and master of the microphone. Sample Vinnie humor: "What's a seven-course Irish meal? A six-pack and a potato." Bah-dum-bump.
The rest of the actors are locals, though you wouldn't guess it from their New Joisey-to-Queens accents. The groom's widower dad, Tony Sr., played by former Keller city councilman James Badalamenti, growls and glowers like a member of Uncle Junior's crew. In the role of Tony Sr.'s way young stripper-girlfriend Madeline Monroe, Amanda Durbin becomes a bimbo extraordinaire. She's the buxom skunk at the picnic, getting so loaded at the reception, she hops atop a table and shake-dances right out of her silver lamé frock. (Warning: If you're thinking of bringing kids to this show, don't!)
At any time during or after the banquet—salad, spaghetti and wedding cake catered by Fair Park's Old Mill Inn Restaurant—Father Mark (Midlothian actor Mark Hall, using a grrrand Scottish burr) might join your table for a little chat. When he thinks no one's watching, the affable padre sneaks snorts of the wet stuff till he's so bladdered he has to be dragged out by his armpits.
Tina's fresh-out-of-rehab ex-beau Michael is played to a twitchy turn by Preston Flagg, who's quick with improvised quips. Hey, Mikey, what's that bulge under your jacket? "A beer," he whispers. "In my 12-step program, the fifth step is to take one step back."
Donny Dulce leads the "guests" in the dreaded chicken dance, croons a mean "That's Amore" and clears out of the way when Tina and her slutty, gum-chomping bridesmaids lip-sync to Britney Spears. No surprise that Tina's choreographer-brother Joey (Toph McRae) knows all of Brit-Brit's dance moves.
At a preview, spectators didn't hesitate to join the celebration. Couples jammed the floor for "YMCA" and "Hava Nagila" and some even waved cash at the "newlyweds" during the tacky "dollar dance." Only the actors participated in the brawl between Tony and Michael, however, so no civilians were harmed in the making of the melee.
Nobody makes anybody play along with Tony 'n' Tina's ill-mannered Nunzio/Vitale families. Guests are free to leave when they want. But just like at most weddings, as long as the music's playing, the champagne's flowing and there's still cake on the table, only teetotalers and killjoys go home early.
Risk Theater Initiative's Slaughterhouse Five may not be the best play in town, but it's certainly the loudest. Adapted by Eric Simonson from Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five; or, The Children's Crusade, A Duty-Dance With Death, the 90-minute drama drops bombs, shoots guns and blasts the ear canals with all manner of thunderous effects.
Requiring three actors to play main character Billy Pilgrim only adds to the confusion. Taubert Nadalini is the boy Billy; Brad Davidson is young adult Billy, traumatized as an American POW held in a meat locker during the firebombing of Dresden; and Chad Gowen Spear plays older Billy, the one "unstuck in time," kidnapped by aliens and turned into a zoo exhibit on the planet Tralfamadore.
Vonnegut's nonlinear, fantastical storytelling loses something condensed into a noisy one-act, even with the help of an authorial narrator sitting spitting-distance from the audience. The play jump-cuts constantly. Child Billy is mistreated by his father. Young man Billy suffers the abuse of Nazi captors, sees flashbacks from his hospital bed and then, as middle-aged Billy, invents interplanetary travel rather than deal with his awful memories of war.
Having the ensemble's 16 actors play multiple roles muddles things further. Swallowed up amid costume changes and incessant sound-quakes is Vonnegut's fatalistic fable of a man losing his grip on reality. Playwright Simonson's version turns Slaughterhouse into a patchwork of blurted dialogue and overlapping Billys. And where the production could enfold the viewer in a thrilling rush of words, sound and action, Risk director Marianne Williamson instead pushes the audience away. There's no one onstage worth feeling for, nothing to engage the emotional gears. With everything happening at once, it is safer to sit back at a safe remove—and plug the ears in self-defense.
To borrow a word invented by Vonnegut, Risk's production is a classic granfalloon.