Planet of the Mermaids

A hot band plays cool music for a wild sci-fi film that may or may not be a put-on

Arts Review

Planet of the Mermaids

The Vortex, 2307 Manor Rd., 478-5282,

Through Jan. 29

Running time: 50 min.

Some live theatre is pure put-on. Spoofs, satires, and camp invite you to laugh at them. Kitsch may not invite you to laugh at it, but you may in spite of yourself. And occasionally you'll come upon something that appears to be a put-on, but you

really can't be sure if it is or even if it's meant to be.

The Electronic Planet Ensemble's current production at the Vortex fits into the latter category. The EPE consists of Rachel Fuhrer, David Jewell, Chad Salvata, and Sergio Samayoa, who play live accompaniment for a movie titled Planet of the Mermaids, which resembles the inbreeding of silent films, B-movie science fiction, and a sort of Sixties psychedelia that looks like it's been run through a seashell palette. The seashell hues are appropriate since the story takes place on Aquanea, a planet almost entirely covered by water discovered by Captain Vydor and his crew – including the intelligent yet nubile female science officer; the cocky, prone-to-violence first mate; and the trusty mechanic – all of whom, more or less, are attacked by the half-human, half-Aquanean sea-sapiens that inhabit the planet, forced to drink different kinds of colored blood, and die or are transformed.

Now, you gotta say, that's a wild plot. But it suffers in the execution. Or, at least, it seems to. Broadly and repetitively stylized, with long sections of typewritten text flashing across the screen subsequently acted out by an ensemble against a background, and sometimes foreground, of seemingly random elements, the film doesn't work – or maybe it does. While much of the EPE accompaniment was done without vocalization, on more than a few occasions, Jewell added some lyrics, sometimes sung, sometimes chanted. And while the music always appropriately accompanied the action onscreen, the lyrics didn't necessarily do so. In addition, the music and the band playing it were always more interesting than the film being shown, but the film, with its jerky imagery often sped up to cartoonish proportions, tended to draw focus. While a director isn't credited, the story is by Salvata, the cinematography and digital imagery by Samayoa, and the starring performance by Jewell, so the EPE was very involved in the choices made for the film.

Most interesting: the band. If you have a fondness for electronica, that is. Saying that Samayoa plays bass, Fuhrer plays drums, and Salvata plays synth doesn't give you a fair idea of the scope of what they're doing. They're wired up there. Most play multiple instruments – Salvata plays three different synthesizers as well as a sampler – and the music they play is great fun to listen to. After all, it's dance music. And you expect music like this to be loud, but surprisingly I was never overwhelmed by volume, which allowed me to really enjoy the sound. And each of the players has a unique presence – Jewell especially, who resembles a latter-day David Byrne (and a present-day Gene Simmons when he dons a wig in the film). And Fuhrer is joyous to watch, playing percussion with the touch of a goddess.

Great music and a compelling band. Which makes the film all the more peculiar. And, perhaps, even more of a put-on. Perhaps even one of an entirely different sort.

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Planet of the Mermaids, Electronic Planet Ensemble, Rachel Fuhrer, David Jewell, Chad Salvata, Sergio Samayoa

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