High and dry

All you dumb asses who attend a Pocket Sandwich Theatre show with the desire to disorder the performers by pelting them with popcorn, beware: The actors have a unique opportunity for revenge in 20,000 Babes Beneath the Sea, and they seize it. I won't reveal it here, but let's just say that while the popcorn bounces easily off of them, you may need a hair-dryer after the show.

This brings me to a fine, if crucial, distinction relating to edible projectiles in the Pocket Sandwich tradition. Of course, they fully intend for you to hurl handfuls, but only as a reaction to what an actor does or says, not to make it more difficult for that actor to move or speak. At the recent Sunday night I was present, one table tossed three or four kernels in quick succession at players' faces as they delivered dialogue. To a degree, the theater invites this kind of boorishness when it boasts on the marquee about another popcorn-throwing spoof, but c'mon, people, let's be a little bit more mature about our immaturity. Ultimately, everyone has paid money to hear performers speak (hopefully) clever lines in a (let's pray) humorous way, so what does trying to make them screw up accomplish?

Lecture aside, not enough of the words that were delivered free of comestible obstruction had me splitting my seams. 20,000 Babes Beneath the Sea features a director of intuitive, empathetic gifts--Bruce Coleman--but he is working with an unusually haphazard, sometimes sterile script from Dallas playwright Steve Lovett, with whom he has collaborated frequently. Lovett is a prominent gear in the comedy machine of Pocket Sandwich Theatre, but he usually relies on far more afflatus than what goes into the misguided, "exaggerated acting plus bad dialogue means unrestrained hilarity" equation. He uses congealed spoof forms of movie genres to spray us playfully with the ironies and absurdities in both literature and the daily headlines. There's little of that in 20,000 Babes Beneath the Sea, which means all the crack-shot comic timing in the universe can't coax chortles from our diaphragms. I did laugh several times, but the route between these stops began to seem longer and longer as the evening went on.

The Pocket Sandwich's latest is the second in Lovett's declared "Babe Wars Trilogy," a triptych that purports to portray the rift between the sexes in stylized locales and situations. In this case, the gals inhabit an undersea "queendom" called Aquatania, ruled by Queen Evianna (Andi Allen, once again channeling Carol Burnett) and her right-hand woman Aquanessa (Carol Rice). Their peaceful marine existence is ruptured by a trio of undersea explorers--the noble and chivalrous Steve Banner (Daniel Morrow), his randy and none-too-bright lieutenant Bucky Fuller (Charles Sanders), and the scrappy Hillary Haines (Raynelle Briggs)--who seek a lost friend and who are being financed by an evil capitalist named Richard Rannett (Charles E. Moore). There are military coups, assassinations, unexpected romances, schemes involving corporate pollution, sea monsters held at bay by remote control, and rivalry for the position of who will be Aquatania's sex god--that is, the one man charged with the responsibility of helping female Aquatanians perpetuate the species. Oddly, little lewdness is on display here, and even more surprisingly, there's an almost nonexistent quotient of gay humor. Nobody is required by comic law to employ this sensibility, but you don't realize its ubiquity in today's popular culture until you stumble across a piece where it's absent. Can a show that makes constant references to "queens" really be unaware of its own contemporary connotations?

The players were game, usually aware of an opportunity to make something funnier than how it was actually written, but too often harnessed by the middling material. There is one startling exception. Charles Sanders gives a near perfect comic performance as Lt. Bucky Fuller, in the sense that he has fused the form of his character--the weird sideways-crab manner in which he teeters across the stage, the lamebrain, tough-guy, mushmouth way he speaks--with the content, the throwaway idiot lines that playwright Lovett has given him to speak. Indeed, it's telling that a sold-out audience that was primed with beer to interrupt and comment on the production could find no entry points into Sanders' towering edifice of oafishness. You waited to see what he would do or say next; scrambling his groove with your own asinine asides would have been a downer for everybody. When the stage lights dim to a soft nightclub glow and Sanders takes the microphone to warble a karaoke version of "20,000 Babes Beneath the Sea," he extends his own comic creation into a new arena, maintaining that stiff-armed lateral gait even as he transforms it into the onstage maneuvers of a suave, old-style entertainer--that is, Bucky Fuller as a suave, old-style entertainer. Sanders almost got a standing ovation (it's hard to rise while sitting so close to your neighbors, with a table stretched across your laps). That he had juggled the characteristics of a dull-witted, horny, fish-lipped, ambulatorily challenged buffoon all evening without a hint of strain--and in increasingly impressive configurations--meant he deserved nothing less.

I wish the rest of the evening had been as peculiarly arresting as Sanders' performance. Much of what transpired around him seemed to be perfunctory rain dancing to summon the inevitable showers of dry, swollen kernels. And I was in a generous, if hyper-attentive, frame of mind. In theory, 20,000 Babes Beneath the Sea (and much of what the Pocket Sandwich offers year-round) should be a chance for a critic to relax, munch some nachos, and generally not have to worry about interpreting grandiose statements about the human condition to readers. But in truth, this stuff is harder to review at length, or at least, ironically, it requires you to pay more attention to what's going on up there, to be more attuned to the inventions of the moment--in short, to be more involved in the theatrical process. A show that prominently features giant blue and yellow water guns doesn't lend itself to exegesis. It's pretty much born when the actors make their entries and dies after they take their final bows, with no philosophical aftertaste to savor. This is precisely what Lovett, Coleman, and their cast intend to accomplish, but given their ephemeral ambitions, the burden is even heavier on actors to forge something memorable from all the discordant wackiness. Considering the production's length, and my past experience with the high standards of wit that Lovett can exercise, 20,000 Babes Beneath the Sea is a tidal wave of gags that still manages to leave you high and dry.

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Jimmy Fowler

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