Curious Theatre Branch

Clean, coherent, conventional narratives have never been Curious Theatre’s strong suit. Or their cup of tea. Like Theater Oobleck, with whom they have become increasingly allied, this collective of actors and musicians seems less interested in creating carefully balanced story lines than in being allowed to make plays any damn way they please. Like Theater Oobleck, the Curious Theatre Branch has all but eliminated the role of director, replacing a single authoritarian presence with a committee of “outside eyes.”

Which is why Curious shows–again like those created by Oobleck–often lack the unity of a production guided by a single vision. But to complain about the messiness of a Curious show is like whining that grunge bands don’t play jazz, or that no one ever really spoke like Shakespeare’s characters. The observation is true, but not very insightful.

In Curious Theatre shows each part is as important as the whole; each passing moment is as rich with allusion, nuance, and meaning as is humanly possible. This aesthetic has become even more pronounced since classically trained actor-director Jill Daly (responsible for the Curious Theatre’s most linear works, I, Figaro and Ward 6) left the group a year ago.

In Curious Theatre’s current show, Losers Alias, written by Bryn Magnus, the narrative–about the battle between a crafty, unscrupulous wrestling promoter, Joey “The Tarmack” Spittleform, and an unseen commission trying to legitimize pro wrestling–takes a backseat to Magnus’s mythopoetic musings about wrestling and to the various imaginative theatrical effects the Curious company has concocted. As a result, Magnus’s story quickly becomes muddled and very hard to follow.

Whether this matters or not depends a lot on your tolerance for ambiguity. Those who need to know at all times what kind of story they’re watching and where it’s going will be driven to distraction by Magnus’s digressive story line and by a production that leaps from comedy to tragedy to parody, from film noir to folktale to performance art, sometimes changing genres in mid-scene. Those with an open mind and patience–and you definitely need a little patience to get through the slower scenes in this play–will be rewarded with some of the most inventive theater in town.

What other company would attempt to recreate a B-movie car chase using only toy cars lit by flashlights? Or would create an elaborate canvas wrestling ring that pulls apart to create two parallelogram-shaped performance areas? Or would put as much energy as the Curious ensemble does into creating intense oddballs like Mark Comiskey’s goofy eternal loser, Doby “Smashing Thunder” Dautch, or Beau O’Reilly’s mad promoter, Spittleform? Near the end Magnus even inserts a faux grunge-rock concert complete with a hilarious parody song–“Umlaut”–worthy of Spinal Tap.

It helps, of course, that there are so many fine actors in Losers Alias. O’Reilly in particular has never played the smarmy hipster so well. Made up of equal parts Billy Graham, Sammy Glick, Mephisto, and O’Reilly’s Maestro Subgum persona, Lefty Fizzle, Spittleform is every inch the character he’s said to be: “The words curled off his lips, gelatinous and typeset.” Comiskey plays the fool, Dautch, with a dancerly commedia dell’arte grace. In one scene, the lithe and nimble Comiskey climbs a ladder that hangs over the stage and dangles upside down like an acrobat as he delivers a monologue. Colm O’Reilly turns in an intense, multilayered performance as Spittleform’s partner in crime, Lewis Jacridge Fields, who whenever he’s at a wrestling match must pretend he and Spittleform are deadly enemies: “Your man couldn’t win tickets to the opera from a public radio station if he was the only caller!”

These fine performances alone wouldn’t mean a thing, however, if behind the multiplicity of styles there weren’t a fairly coherent message: that pro wrestling is really a form of theater–a “choreographed morality tableau,” Spittleform calls it–that’s most meaningful when the game is rigged.