Ed Krieger/Laguna PlayhouseNo matter how we TiVo through them, or turn the volume down or otherwise disregard them, commercials are always there, unmistakable, unavoidable—crabs on the pudenda of pop culture.
Or, if you believe Marcus Gordon, the Type-A director at the center of Rob Ackerman's play Tabletop, commercials are the only truth on television. The shows are lies interrupted by commercials, he observes; commercials, on the other hand, are complete in and of themselves, 30 seconds of art.
Art? Marcus and his crew are filming a simple tabletop spot, the pouring of a pink, frothy fruit drink into a plastic cup. But for Marcus, there's nothing more important than, nothing as sacred and holy as the shooting of this image.
From this insight into commerce as art flows excellent theater. Director Andrew Barnicle—proving once again that he's one of the finest directors west of Riverside—trusts his script, leading his cast to a place where the relationships they share with other people onstage are wholly believable. His production captures the conflict between art and commerce, the desperation of people who realize their time has passed but who still frantically cling to their reputation for formidable power, the sobering moment when people realize the craft they've spent their lives honing doesn't make them artists.
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In Tabletop, one of the most honored forms of discourse (theater) takes on one of the most hated (the TV commercial) and makes us see both differently. Throughout the play, characters wrestle in different ways with what they do for a living. One guy says they're nothing more than snake-oil salesmen, creating needs for useless junk rather than helping to meet them. Another, the young, hapless Ron, whose idealism and passion ultimately turns the director into an equally hapless neurotic, considers what he and his fellow technicians do as the finest of arts. Five hundred years ago, he says, they would have been sculpting gargoyles onto grand cathedrals; now, they are "divine, wing-footed messengers carrying news of the divine" to all who gaze at the altar of the cathode tube.
It's not a perfect script. Ackerman can't resist the impulse to drop in token black and gay characters. And there are stretches in which the characters are mired in the tedious jargon of union shoptalk. But those are minor irritations in a play that mostly whisks by in a compact 100 minutes or so.
Whether they're artisans or hacks, the significance of their work is indisputable, and it's their work that is drilled into the public conscience at a rate—and volume—never before seen in the long, spotty history of man.
Tabletop at Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-ARTS. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m. Through June 27. $45-$52; students half-price except Fri.-Sat nights and Sun. matinees.