Reefer Madness

The Bedlam Faction tackle the cult hit 'Reefer Madness' with a postured, exaggerated approach that's totally intentional and often quite funny

Arts Review

Reefer Madness

The Hideout, through April 30

Running Time: 1 hr, 10 min

Oh, that demon weed marijuana, aka pot, grass, ganja, maryjane, and, in this current production, hot sticks! Did you know that only one puff from a marijuana cigarette – a "joint" or "reefer" – leads to immediate, hysterical fits of laughter? Did you know that smoking a single joint causes hallucinatory episodes and turns you into a crazed sex maniac? Did you know that repeated use of marijuana drives you completely insane?

At least that's what the propagandists behind this story would have you believe. Financed as a film in 1938 by a church group (natch), the tale embodied here contains more disinformation than a White House press release. Originally intended as a cautionary tale titled Tell Your Children (and if you can see the irony there, you'll definitely enjoy this show), after a short initial run it was forgotten until the 1970s, when it was distributed on college campuses as Reefer Madness and became an instant cult hit because of its unintentionally camp style. In other words, it isn't just the story that's over the top; it's the storytelling as well.

That's certainly the case in this live rendering of the film from the Bedlam Faction performance collective. Bill and Mary are two sweet and innocent high school students living the pure all-American life, but you can't have good without evil, and when Mary's younger brother, Jimmy, takes up with Jack, who runs a weed distribution ring out of a local apartment, their lives begin a downward spiral that leads to addiction, rape, murder, insanity – name your poison! Marijuana causes it!

While the camp style found in the film was unintentional, the Bedlamites go for a postured, exaggerated approach that's totally intentional and often quite funny. Of course, it's fairly easy to ridicule anything concerning attitudes about marijuana – after all, we'd much rather have a population drunk, out of control, and committing vehicular manslaughter on a regular basis than mellowed out and enjoying themselves so much they'd rather sit on a couch and chill. You'll never again see this many joints lit up in one show, and my bet is you'll never again see people enjoy lighting up joints like these actors do. Every toke is a pure piece of drugged-out nirvana, accompanied more often than not by insane giggling. Of all the tokers on display, the primary purveyor of this smoky insanity is Michael Mergen as Ralph, a local boy who has a thing for sweet Mary. Ralph is holding himself together well at the beginning of the story, but by the end, he's a twitching, flailing mass of pot-despoiled hysteria. Camp isn't an easy style to play, as it depends on precision and timing, but the Bedlamites, on only their second night of performance, seemed to be all over it.

The play moves quickly, although it doesn't always flow smoothly. Either the lighting equipment at the Hideout is limited or the Faction could use a designer or two. In any case, don't go expecting high production values, but do go expecting a tight, funny story delivered by a group of actors who seem to have a much more than adequate understanding of their subject. I'm not sure if that comes across as a compliment, but it's meant to be.

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Reefer Madness, Bedlam Faction, Tell Your Children, Michael Mergen

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