Action Movie: The Play

Defiant Theatre

at American Theater Company

It’s not surprising that stage combat is enjoying a sort of renaissance in Chicago, as evidenced by the success of shows like Babes With Blades: most audiences simply aren’t accustomed to seeing feats of athleticism and dexterity in the theater. Physicality and traditional theatricality can be uneasy bedfellows, however. Two recent shows–Defiant Theatre’s Action Movie: The Play and a remount of Emanon’s The Three Musketeers–attempt to synthesize the two, looking for the middle ground of an action show with a clear narrative, though neither completely succeeds.

Action Movie: The Play fares much better than The Three Musketeers, primarily because it capitalizes on what Defiant does best: provide its audiences with a visceral, confrontational theatergoing experience. Defiant cleverly combines pantomime, slapstick, farce, puppetry, and masks–all staples of the 19th- and early-20th-century stage–with canny movement and design wizardry to pay homage to traditions of the past while making use of present technology. Most impressive is the company’s collaborative process: its multifaceted ensemble members perform a wide range of functions in each production. Defiant’s unmistakable style has been indelibly imprinted on every project it’s attempted in the past five seasons, from original adaptations to the works of established contemporary playwrights. Most have been more serious than this production, however.

Of course attempts to capture the intensity and vitality of film onstage are nothing new in Chicago. Groups like Sweetback Productions have carved out a cozy little niche by performing B-movie scripts like Plan 9 From Outer Space with enough sincerity to draw out the superficial humor; such stagings don’t have the ironic distance necessary to make any deeper statements, however. Similarly, Azusa’s clunky staging of Quentin Tarantino’s overtly cinematic Reservoir Dogs last winter highlighted the dangers of trusting too much in the strength of a proven source. Indeed, most of the countless remountings of individual films and parodies of film genres on Chicago’s stages each year are stunted by their limited aims, whether absolute verisimilitude or complete irreverence.

Bad film doesn’t necessarily make for good theater. Defiant Theatre playwrights Richard Ragsdale and Joe Foust deserve credit for recognizing this as they attempt to transform an admittedly atrocious genre into a worthwhile theatrical event. To this end, they’ve compressed all the worst cliches of the modern-day action film into two hours. Plot and character development are entirely absent, and with good reason–as it is, there’s barely enough room to accommodate the script’s nonstop sexual innuendo and mind-numbing violence. Like the best of the summer blockbusters, Action Movie: The Play is unquestionably bad. At the same time, Ragsdale and Foust take a highbrow approach to lowbrow entertainment. Their play walks a fine line between idolatry and irony, skewering the very features it lionizes.

Ragsdale and Foust simultaneously love action movies and love to hate them; their knowledge of the genre is near encyclopedic. The six characters that form the play’s heroic team are all standard genre types. Dr. Xylene is the mysterious wheelchair-bound ringleader; Stone Hardgod, the vengeful, grizzled Vietnam vet; Cyborg Woman, a cold, analytical killing machine; Alec Smarty, the socially maladjusted computer genius; Jack Jackson, the vigilante cop; and Kung Fu Guy, the Zen-like martial arts master. Part of the challenge for the playwrights is keeping up a relentless onslaught of film references. Some pay homage to specific movies, like a fight sequence centered on a ladder that comes directly from Rumble in the Bronx. Others draw on exaggerated but instantly recognizable archetypes of the genre, like a running gag in which babies, hapless Girl Scouts, and overstocked fruit carts are placed squarely in the middle of life-and-death situations.

Action Movie: The Play is at its clever best, however, when it self-consciously comments on its ridiculous sources, offering lines of dialogue you’d never hear in this misogynistic, often pedantic genre. Take, for instance, Cyborg Woman’s response to the suggestion that fighting crime is a man’s work: “Why? Does the job require you to stick a cock in it?” Or Jack Jackson’s sarcastic eulogy for a pregnant heroin addict: “Drugs don’t make you cool or popular–they just make you feel real good.” Such lines function as both innocuous jokes and indictments of Hollywood hypocrisy.

As far as pure spectacle goes, Action Movie: The Play is always entertaining and frequently breathtaking; an extended car chase featuring a duel with fully operational chain saws is alone worth the price of admission. But as a piece of theater, the play has its problems, most visible in the pacing. Action Movie: The Play never achieves the breakneck pace typical of the genre: even the tightest scenes are allowed to drone on. And while the genre’s cliches are mapped out in admittedly humorous fashion, they’re largely reproduced onstage: little effort has been made to rectify them. This may be the perfect staging of a fictitious film, but it’s not a completely successful synthesis of film and theater.

Still, it would be interesting to see what Defiant could do with the resources of a motion-picture studio. Even without a special-effects budget the size of James Cameron’s ego, the company has managed to put all the blockbuster films this summer to shame.

The Three Musketeers

Emanon Theater Company

at the Footsteps Theatre

There’s a lot to like about The Three Musketeers, Emanon Theater Company’s original adaptation of the Alexandre Dumas classic, combining gratuitous stage combat with incredibly juvenile, highly amusing comedy. The fight choreography never achieves the dizzying heights of innovation exhibited in Action Movie: The Play, but this production remains a solid if unspectacular example of what can be accomplished with a minimum of props. While Defiant literally brings in the big guns, Emanon takes a more conservative approach, limiting itself to fisticuffs and swordplay. Avoiding the petty, contrived cliches of the modern-day action film, The Three Musketeers aims instead for nostalgia, taking its cues from classic old Douglas Fairbanks/Errol Flynn swashbuckling epics.

The Three Musketeers has undergone a complete overhaul since its premiere at the Mayer Kaplan Jewish Community Center last fall. Then the clunky script seemed to cry out for a major edit–a common enough problem among plays developed through improvisation. This staging cuts the original length by about half, but unfortunately much of the exposition, which kept the convoluted narrative on track, has been eliminated. The new performance space also creates some problems: with up to a dozen actors crammed onto the tiny Footsteps stage, it frequently looks cluttered. Many of the fight sequences that were so impressive sprawled out over a much larger area now look rote and mechanical.

Moreover, the intensity the performers brought to each goofy gag and ham-handed one-liner of the original production offset its sloppiness. Unfortunately, many of the brightest performers from the original cast have been replaced in this staging. And for whatever reason, the new cast doesn’t seem to work as well together. Perhaps it’s a direct reaction to the stifling summer weather or the claustrophobia that Footsteps’ too intimate space breeds. Either way, many of the ensemble members look uncomfortable. They don’t appear to be having fun; instead, they make apologies for the script’s weaknesses with relentless mugging. The Three Musketeers was much more enjoyable when it wasn’t trying so hard to entertain.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Action Movoe: the Play theater still by Geoffrey Fingerhut.