Curious Theater Branch

at Theater Oobleck

In 1985 Maestro Subgum and the Whole was a nine-piece band with a sound described by one music critic as “the Miami Sound Machine meets the Residents.” The Maestro’s music at that time was unique in that it consisted not so much of songs but five-minute operas–philosophical satire as intellectual and didactic as Brecht at his most sermonly, but softened by sharply orchestrated harmonies and clever production-number choreography. An evening with the Maestro wasn’t a concert but a week-long film festival, complete with cartoons, newsreels, and short documentaries.

By 1987 the band had split up and Beau O’Reilly, the most actively creative member, had joined up with an actress named Jenny Magnus. Together they constructed the cabaret review, The Angles of Angst, the Omelettes of Experience, or It’s All the Same Fuckin’ Day, Man. The piece reflected nearly all the worst aspects of the incoherent-funny-noises-and-grotesque-postures school of performance art–except for a couple of sharp-edged musical numbers whose professionalism stood out like compass points amid the chaos.

Careening Is a Skill–a new production directed by Tom Amandes that’s now playing at Theater Oobleck–is, I’m happy to report, made up mostly of music, with a few well-edited spoken scenes and even a plot, though no more than needed to string the elements together.

This plot is simple, if threadbare. The Nothing-Is-Everything Man, played by Bryn Magnus, takes a spiritual journey through the hell that is our modern world (oh-so-originally portrayed as a mental hospital) and, after many trials and false directions, discovers the meaning of life and thus defeats death. The various choices are illustrated by several spokespersons (all played by Jenny Magnus), including the paranoid Larry Dubb, the mystical Davey, the homeless mother Hannah, the insatiably erotic Chloe, the workaholic Rosa May Carbuncle, and finally the pragmatic Rationalman, who brings our modern everyman to the brink of oblivion. There he suddenly finds enlightenment, escapes death, and returns to the world with a renewed sense of purpose.

Guidance and continuity on this path is provided by the ogreish Lefty Fizzle, who acts as narrator and chorus leader (“You’d better make a decision soon. The play’s almost over”). Further support is supplied by Beau’s sister Kate O’Reilly, his son Colm O’Reilly (this is a real family show), and Marianne Fieber, who collectively–all three are zipped into one costume–comprise Doctor Body. Michael Greenburg is the indefatigable piano player.

The music includes the eerily bouncy “Miracle Cure,” the Gilbert-and-Sullivanish title song, “Careening Is a Skill (Ask the Mentally Ill),” and the uproarious gospel finale “Never Let It Be Said That You’d Be Better Off Dead.” There are also many clever spoken lines delivered in swift deadpan succession (my favorite was “Your tabula is definitely rasa”).

Jenny Magnus is outstanding in her multiple roles. Assigned what could easily have become nothing more than an agitprop drag act, she gives each individual a full set of human characteristics and–most important–an equally valid point of view. She takes these characters seriously, something done all too seldom in this kind of play. As the naive and passive Nothing-Is-Everything Man, Bryn Magnus doesn’t have much to do, but he brings a touching bewilderment to the part. Beau O’Reilly seems incapable of underplaying, but he keeps his mannerisms and mugging under control well enough to produce a polished and disciplined performance. Of the Doctor Body chorus, only Kate O’Reilly–with goldfish eyes and a clear soprano strong enough to guide in airplanes–is memorable.

Careening isn’t a perfect show, by any means. Nor is it a big or significant one. But even with all its rough edges, I still recommend it highly. At the rate the Maestro and company have been progressing, it’s only a matter of time before they’re playing the Auditorium for $50 a ticket (Stephen Sondheim’s gotta step down sometime). See them now and save.