If phenomenal acceleration: A Vaudeville for the End of the Century were a college course, it might read this way in the course catalog: "The effect of impending catastrophe on the individual." And it would almost certainly come under the heading Abnormal Psych.
Other than that, it's not really clear what Sledgehammer Theatre's latest foray into the realm of theatrical mindfucking is all about. Conceived and directed by Ethan Feerst and written by Tim West, the play's four loosely connected scenes never mesh into a whole. But the fact that this is a Sledgehammer show and is graced by the company's intense visual vocabulary (executed here by David Ledsinger's spookily high-tech scenic design and David Lee Cuthbert's equally evocative lighting) makes it easy to overlook the material deficiencies. It's hard to believe there isn't a solid line somewhere in there.
Each of the scenes deals in some fashion with apocalyptic culture. The Four Horsemen on display are war, overpopulation, unchecked technology and famine. Slobodan Milosevic; his wife, Mira; and Boris Yeltsin pound vodka and cognac and engage in a game of pool and political dialogue as NATO bombs rain on Belgrade. A Chinese woman seeks asylum in the United States because she fears what will happen if she gives birth to her second child. The trial of Bill Gates turns a prosecuting attorney into a yimmering, yammering ape. And a radio talk-show host engages in an intense dialogue with a survivalist businessman on the specter of Y2K.
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While the first two scenes are smartly written (and while Cheryl Cameron does play a mean slide guitar), they're mostly unsatisfying rambles. But the last two alone are worth the price of admission.
Bill Gates vs. the United States of America is a fascinating piece of theater that uses actual trial transcripts from the current U.S. antitrust action. But that's the only thing real in this place. The trial slowly devolves into a truly bizarre ballet graced by Jean Isaacs' dynamic choreography.
The theatrical chutzpah of that scene is nicely counterpointed by the finale, Apocalypse Chow. This is minimal theater at its finest: two guys sitting around mics in a radio station talking about Y2K and the end of the world as we know it. And, yes, they feel just fine, because they're ready. It's the most frightening of the four scenes, not only because it's based on the broadcasts and writings of radio celebrity Art Bell, but also because these characters (expertly played by Walter Murray and Matt Scott) are so convinced of Y2K's imminence and the widespread disaster that will follow. They're rational-sounding, thoughtful and convinced. And, in some weird, disconcerting fashion, it's their absolute lack of panic that scares the shit out of me.
Phenomenal Acceleration: A Vaudeville for the End of the Century at Sledgehammer Theatre, 1620 Sixth Ave., San Diego, (619) 544-1484. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. Through Nov. 28. $15-$20.