Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Wayne Alan Brenner, Fri., Nov. 8, 2002
Reefer Madness: High and Mighty Funny
The Hideout, through Nov. 16
Running Time: 1 hr
Watching the Bedlam Faction's staging of Reefer Madness while straight is almost as much fun as watching the punk rock episode of Quincy while stoned off your ass. That is to say: It's a bale of fun.
Previous shows from the Faction have been criticized for the group's insistence on collectively shaping the work, with the entire cast participating in every production choice as opposed to a single director calling all the shots. But this system must not be inherently flawed, because the troupe has pulled off a doozy of an entertainment here, containing only the meager sort of flaws you might find in a show helmed by some talented auteur. And who knows if the audience (or the cast) would have had as much fun if only a single person had been in charge?
Matt Kozusko might know; his Dr. Carroll character is certain that he knows the facts about everything, especially the dreaded scourge of marihuana -- a demon(ized) narcotic that this show, based on the anti-dope propaganda film of the 1930s, is meant to (wink, wink) rally all good citizens against. Michael T. Mergen probably doesn't have time to know; he's too busy playing violent hophead Ralph as a sort of cross between the young Steve Martin and a rabid macaque. His descent into madness is a herky-jerky freak-out worth half the price of admission. Liz Fisher doesn't know, not if playing the initially pure and innocent Mary Lane has clouded her mind from complex thought. Dan Vanhoozer, as Mary's even more clueless beau Bill, couldn't possibly know anything -- except that, gee, life sure is swell ... especially after you smoke one of those funny cigarettes.
Other members of the cast who distinguish themselves are Robert Deike (who looks so much like what you expect a character like Jack to look like), Shanna Smith (as dope pusher and alcoholic chanteuse Mae), Elizabeth Mason (who slays with her garish German psychologist turn), and Yasmin Kittles (who lights up any stage, regardless).
The Bedlam Faction inventively unfolds this overwrought story of youth gone wrong, showcasing vintage costumes and using a sweet array of theatrical tricks to replicate the original cinematic scene changes and camera angles. Several actors freeze so that stilled others may move, then unfreeze as the narrative shifts back to them. Lights and sound work together to divide locations and provide an approximation of the marihuana "experience." Minimal sets are built around characters as (not before) they enter each new scene; not only is this handled smoothly, giving evidence of much rehearsal, but, in the case of the raucous scenes at Mae's place, it seems completely natural: Hey, this is just how a party happens!
Some flaws mar the experience, though -- the way even the best joint might harbor a wayward seed or two. Like: Since the Faction's stated purpose is to work this gig straight, and since they do precisely that so well, why does Travis Holmes' Judge get presented as Foghorn Leghorn by way of Flip Wilson? Like: Someone should let Liz Fisher know that her secondary defense lawyer doesn't have to talk even faster than a Rosalind Russell wiseacre, because we'd understand more of her lines if she slowed down. And: After the inspired use of projected shadows to depict a woman's move toward self-defenestration, how could these guys forget to provide some Foley equivalent of shattering glass?
You'll have little time to pay attention to these quibbles at the show, though, citizen; you'll likely be too busy appreciating the big talent and energy behind this successful live rendition of what even modern squares know is a very funny film.