City Lit Theater Company

When Philip Jose Farmer published Riders of the Purple Wage in 1967, he was a middle-aged man. Yet his science fiction novel has a distinctly adolescent sensibility. Set in the year 2189, on Level 14 of Beverly Hills, Riders revolves around Chibiabos Elgreco Winnegan (Steve Emerson), who is trying to establish himself as an artist. Chib can ensure his success by having sex with the all-powerful critic Rex Luscus, but he refuses to engage in such crass prostitution. Meanwhile, Chib’s girlfriend is pregnant and wants to have an abortion, and his grandfather is being pursued by Falco Accipiter, a tax agent so suspicious that, as grandpa says, “he peers up his anus to make sure that no duck has taken refuge there.”

Farmer sounds like a teenager trying to imitate the linguistic complexity of Finnegans Wake while brooding about sex, corrupt authority, personal identity, and the meaning of life. The City Lit Theater’s adaptation of the novel revels in this adolescent sensibility, and that is both the chief strength and the chief weakness of the production.

Arnold Aprill, who adapted the novel for City Lit and directed the show, has encouraged the actors to deliver their lines with a reckless vigor that verges on camp: they seem to be relishing the sound of the words while ignoring their sense. And the production is a parade of visual jokes. When Chib, for example, comes out of his girlfriend’s bedroom, a Slinky dangles from his fly. The actress who plays his mother is embedded in a grotesque body puppet with mountainous breasts and mounds of fat cascading down her torso. The one-eyed critic Luscus wears an eye patch with an eye painted on it, giving his face a disturbing sardonic expression. He also has hugely oversize ears and a jacket with tiny babies hanging from it. A reporter wears a movie camera mounted on his hat; a woman’s turban has a plastic snake protruding from it; a man wears a net with whales dangling from it. Barely an instant passes without some sort of visual surprise.

This is all delightful, but the exuberance of the production distracts from and so subverts the content. Though Riders of the Purple Wage is splendid to look at and delightful to hear, its meaning remains vague. In fact, reading the script is a much different experience from listening to the play–without all the distractions provided by the City Lit production, Farmer’s critical intent moves into the foreground.

But even on the page, it is obvious that Farmer is having a wonderful time simply playing games with language. He squeezes double meanings out of words and delights in their strange sounds. Chib’s grandfather, still spry and mischievous despite his 125 years, calls himself the “ancient marinator–a marinade of wisdom steeped in the brine of over-salted cynicism and too long a life.” When discussing his impotence, he explains, “My clapper swings limberly in the bell of my sex–ding dong, ding dong. A lot of dong and not much ding.”

And the sociological spiel that opens the second act, delivered by Dr. Jesperson Joyce Bathymens, psycholinguist for the Federal Bureau of Group Reconfiguration and Intercommunicability, is an orgy of puns and inflated prose. “A radish is not necessarily reddish,” he says. “The Young Radishes, the subject of tonight’s presentation, so named their group because a radish is a radicle, hence, a radical. Also, there’s a play on roots and on red-ass, a slang term for anger, and possibly ruttish and rattish.” (This gibberish, which goes on for several minutes, earned David Ward a well-deserved ovation on opening night.)

The play does attempt to convey the author’s vision of an overly mechanized society, in which “Mr. and Mrs. Everyman sit on their asses all day, drink, eat, and watch fido [television], and their brains run to mud and their bodies to sludge.” But actually the boisterous songs, by Eric Barnes, come closer than the script does to capturing Farmer’s critique of this society. In the song called “The Big Taboo,” for example, we’re shown parents’ creepy exploitation of incest, which has become commonplace in this society of the future. “The family that blows is the family that grows,” explains Alfred Melophon Voxpopper, a fido celebrity.

Costume designer Faye Fisher-Ward obviously learned a thing or two by working with Steve Pickering on the wildly inventive costumes for Bailiwick’s Animal Farm. Some of the images she creates are almost hallucinatory. Accipiter has a beak for a nose; Grandpa prances around in boxer shorts made out of an American flag and wears a beard that makes him look like Karl Marx; Chib’s girlfriend sports bicycle reflectors for nipples. And Jim Janacek, who designed the special props and effects, has put together a closing surprise that makes the author’s identification with James Joyce unmistakable.

Though all the performances have a manic quality, Cameron Pfiffner gives Grandpa Winnegan an irascible sense of humor, and Steve Emerson manages to project Chib’s brooding nature. They don’t have much more luck than anyone else in extracting meaning from the material, but then this seems a production meant to be seen, heard, and enjoyed, not understood.