Think universally, laugh locally. Big themes come laced with oodles of hometown references in Heaven Forbid(s)!, the biting new comedy written by and starring Marco Rodriguez, now playing at the itty-bitty Ice House Cultural Center in Oak Cliff.
It's the first new show in two years from Rodriguez's Martice Enterprises, producers of humorsome Latino-themed fare. Rodriguez, a New Yorker who landed in Dallas by way of theater grad school at SMU, has been busy acting elsewhere during his hiatus from writing and producing, including major roles at Kitchen Dog Theater, Shakespeare Dallas and in a nationally airing Subway commercial.
Rodriguez and his writing partners—Rhianna Mack (who co-stars in the new show), Israel Luna and Michael Stevens—like to concoct shows that slap the most egregious cultural stereotypes on characters, then rear back and rabbit-punch every awful cliché out of them. They mix their messages about racial identity with smatterings of politics, metaphysics, Catholicism and the gospel according to pimps, hos and bimbos.
Heaven Forbid(s)!, more blackout-sketch revue than play, goes after laughs with a look at some troubled souls in the afterlife. When the lights blaze up on the first scene, Rodriguez and Mack rise from the floor as characters who've just shuffled off their mortal coil. Stuck in purgatory, that fuzzily defined mezzanine between heaven and hell, they ruminate on how they arrived there. Local reference numero uno drops when Rodriguez says his whole purpose on earth was to be cast in a production at Dallas Theater Center (an inside joke among Dallas actors is that no local minority actors, other than Liz Mikel, are ever hired there as anything but walk-ons). He could die happy, he says, after finally being cast as "Beggar with Bad Cockney Accent #3" in DTC's annual Christmas Carol.
The ensuing 100 intermission-less minutes find Rodriguez and Mack alternating scenes in different guises as God (a Spanglish-spewing clean freak), the Universe (kind of a starry-eyed flake) and a raft of unhappy visitors in the spiritual waiting room. He comes on as Gloria, a pre-op tranny streetwalker shot by an unhappy john. Mack—so skinny she must have to jog around in the shower to get wet—does a crazy turn as a grief coach for mourners who need to fake sadness when they're secretly thrilled the sumbitch is dead. Even better is Mack in a pencil-thin mustache as a pimp too proud to use profanity. Revealing that he died of "nut cancer," he cracks that "God is ironic that way."
Irony, satire, broad comedy that limbos lower and lower—Heaven Forbid(s)! has all that, but it's funniest when it dares to go one-on-one. Rodriguez and Mack, both confident solo performers, speak directly to the audience throughout the proceedings, and since they're almost in the patrons' laps anyway in the makeshift acting space at the Ice House, they'll often stop and editorialize on what they see going on beyond that invisible fourth wall.
That means if you try tippy-toeing out to the restroom mid-show, Rodriguez, still in character, will go off-script and ask why you need to pee at precisely that moment in his monologue. Let a cell phone chirp and you'll be pulled out of your seat and thrust into the spotlight for a comic upbraiding. Be tardy, as a party of five was on the night reviewed, and you and your friends will be marched glassy-eyed to center stage and fiercely scolded about bad manners.
These guerilla tactics keep the energy sparked and spontaneous, and it's always satisfying to see latecomers, snoozers and cell phone misusers embarrassed in public. But the scripted material isn't nearly as strong as Rodriguez and Mack's comic improvisations. If it were, Heaven Forbid(s)! would! be! great! Instead, it's almost too indulgently rough-hewn. Get to what you think is the end of the show—everyone applauds as if it is—and there's a long sit in the dark for costume changes and then one more superfluous scene to wind things up. A good director (there's none listed for the production) would have insisted on axing that epilogue. Those 100 minutes of sketches easily could be trimmed in half and the show would still deliver as many laughs, brevity being the soul of wit and all.
As an actor, Rodriguez can be fearless. As a writer, he's still a bit shaky. He does manage to temper his tendency toward cheap humor with generous blasts of humanity that shine through the dick jokes and the mean digs at our squinty new mayor and whether going to hell after living in Duncanville is redundant. Even tucked in and trussed up in hot pants as Gloria the tranny, Rodriguez, as actor and writer, can take the audience beyond the easy laughs to moments of real poignancy that hit somewhere closer to the heart than the funny bone.
Heaven Forbid(s)! might still feel like a work in progress, but even short of a final polish, a lot of it is dead-on. Given the subject matter—life, death, eternity and spots in between—it just seems to prove the old theatrical maxim first uttered by an expiring Brit: Dying is easy; comedy is hard.
Heaven on earth is two hours of singing by M. Denise Lee, Cedric Neal and Chimberly Carter in A Brief History of White Music, a late-season addition now making happy music in the intimate Studio Theatre at WaterTower in Addison.
The jukebox-revue concept by Dee Dee Thomas and David Tweedy, who premiered the show off-Broadway in 1996, is pure Branson (Missouri, not Richard). A trio of black singers performs a two-hour catalog of vintage pop hits originally sung by white artists, from the Andrews Sisters to the Fab Four. The twist is in the fresh arrangements (by Rick Seeber). Every song has been re-imagined with a touch of soul—what one of Marco Rodriguez's characters would call "blackifying" the music.
The trick to White Music is finding singers equal to the challenge of making magic out of Muzak. Directed by Terry Martin, with expert musical direction by Buddy Shanahan, who also plays keyboards, WaterTower's cast is tops. Their voices blend like they've been harmonizing together for years, not just for two weeks of rehearsals. They're as tight as Manhattan Transfer, as crisp and smooth as the Fifth Dimension.
White Music serves as a cute showcase for these veterans of serious musicals here and on other Dallas stages. Classically trained Neal was a standout in Uptown Theatre's recent production of Jonathan Larson's tick, tick...BOOM! Carter belted her heart out in Theatre Three's Caroline, or Change. Lee, queen of the cabaret scene, sang the role of the Wicked Witch in WaterTower's Into the Woods.
It must be hard not to feel Six Flags-y in a show that encourages audience sing-alongs—you know the chorus lyrics to "Do Wah Diddy Diddy" and "Yellow Polka-dot Bikini," whether you want to or not—and that requires the wearing of frightful wigs for portrayals of Sonny and Cher. But Neal, Carter and Lee twinkle and smile through the dum-diddy-dumbest bits. Neal and Lee go nuts with a photo-negative "I Got You Babe." Carter charmingly squeaks and squeals through "Leader of the Pack."
Campiness gives way to sheer vocal virtuosity, though, on Carter's soaring solo of "To Sir With Love" and Lee's throaty "I Will Follow Him." Neal takes one of the Beatles' first hits, "I Wanna Hold Your Hand," and slows it down to a ballad so languorous and sexy, the old song feels brand-new.
Little else in A Brief History of White Music does. For this one, come for the singers, not the songs.
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