Part Southern rock opera and part 'Hamlet,' Refraction Arts' comedy is totally captivating and hilarious
Reviewed by Avimaan Syam, Fri., Dec. 21, 2007
Blue Theater, through Dec. 21 Running Time: 1 hr, 50 min
The Assumption begins with a crew of madcap ruffians milling about a postapocalyptic, white-trash wonderland constructed in the parking lot outside the Blue Theater. They shoot the shit, drink beer, and throw bikes into a tree. After a giant bear chases them inside, the loading docks of the building are opened for the audience to follow. You must wander through the mosaic of trailer-trash baubles and over the stage swamp via a plank-board bridge to reach your seats. Talk about immersion: You're literally forced to enter the strange, wild world created by Refraction Arts.
And what a particularly peculiar world it is. With its empty High Life cans and mullet cuts, there's something decidedly Southern about it. But what with the kimonos, tea ceremonies, and martial arts, there's a dash of the Eastern in there, too. While the origins of The Assumption's world are diverse, its creation is complete: The characters are so committed to their environment that there's nothing false about a kung fu exhibition or a man with a myriad of fake mustaches being in it. Part Southern rock opera, part Hamlet, and totally hilarious, last year's Austin Critics Table winner for outstanding comedy returns with all the delight and spectacle of its original run.
The Assumption calls itself "very, very loosely based on Hamlet." So what's rotten in the state of the tire yard by the swamp? Well, it could be a lot of things. It could be the paint-spattered pack of moronic cousins or whatever's festering under the beer-can statues or the fact that Clarence killed D. Ray's father by putting an alligator in his toilet and married his mother. "To fuck or to kill," that is the replacement to the melancholy prince's brooding contemplation. This may seem crude, but past the crazy paraphernalia of the tire yard is a carefully crafted story. Calling itself "loosely based on Hamlet" actually does The Assumption a disservice. By no means do you need to know Hamlet to appreciate this production. There's plenty to laugh at, look at, and be moved by without the Shakespearean allusions.
That said, it's great to have the highbrow references hidden beneath the surface. The scenes aren't exactly translated or precisely in order, but Bard buffs will find quite a few "Aha!" moments in the production, say, recognizing Clarence's doo-wop serenade as Claudius' repentance speech or Aunt Po-Po's spouting of Southern rock lyrics to her son as Polonius' advice. Old Hamlet's ghost is transformed into a giant bear; the play-within-a-play is converted into the wrestlers coming to town (with the greatest wrestling match I've seen this side of Vince McMahon and his 'roid rage crew); the pirates are made over into a Southern biker gang – the references to Shakespeare's rotten state are littered throughout Assumption's tire yard.
The Assumption offers you so much to take in. At any given time, Mama may be primping at her make-up station or the cousins dancing or D. Ray practicing his kung fu. If only one thing is happening onstage, it's for a damn good reason. This holds true both visually – black-light David Carradine posters, tiki torches, beer-can statues – and aurally – loud live rock, banging noises, synchronized stomp rituals for funeral observations and celebrations. Refraction Arts has crammed so much into The Assumption, and yet its performance is incredibly tight. If they haven't received enough plaudits, co-directors and creators Sonnet Blanton and Julia M. Smith deserve even more. With such an amazing stage design, soundtrack, and committed performances, it's hard to single out any one artist for specific praise. This captivating, funny, and precise production is one of the best theatrical experiences – if not the numero uno theatrical experience – I've had in Austin.