Zac ArgosLong Beach playwrights Nick Armstrong and Jeff Kriese have something in common with English playwright Joe Orton—and, so far at least, it has nothing to do with having your lover beat your brains out with a hammer before swallowing 22 sleeping pills.
That was the unfortunate fate of Orton, who, had he survived the 1960s and lived past the age of 34, might have become the most dangerous playwright ever. As it is, he left behind seven plays, including his masterpiece, What the Butler Saw, which opens Saturday courtesy of the Grove Theater Center.
Orton spent his relatively few, frenetic adult years trying gleefully to hack his way into the British literary consciousness through a series of plays and other writings that skewered everything from the hypocrisy of middle-class morals to Winston Churchill's cock. His ferocious playfulness, vicious satire and skillful wordsmithing is best epitomized by Butler, his 1967 play that, when done well, is as hilarious as it is horrifying.
"What I like about it is that you can enjoy it as a basic British farce, but it's also such a strong social satire as well, and works on all different levels," director Kevin Cochran said. "And because it's an Orton play, any time you have an excuse to do a dick joke, you do it."
Commentator John Lahr said Orton raised the stakes of farce with Butler, putting distasteful subjects on stage with a delight in human animality. It's Oedipus Rex as staged by Georges Feydeau. He masterfully blended the form of farce—doors slamming, heightened physicality, an almost arithmetic progression of pace—with subjects that you see only in the bleakest of tragedies, including incest and rape.
Among its many targets, Butler attacks the science of modern psychology: the play is set in a loony bin in which the staff is far crazier than the patients.
Which brings us to Armstrong and Kriese (or did you think we forgot them? C'mon: we're not the stoned part of this partnership, people). The co-founders of Free Dirt Productions have a new play, Hospital Overlord,that opens this weekend at Cal State Long Beach as part of Prism Productions' annual summer series.
In Hospital Overlord, the audience finds itself part of a self-help seminar intended to help deal with the dangers of "world domination syndrome." As part of the seminar, there's a video portraying the dangers of unchecked world domination. The video, ostensibly filmed in a hospital, is staged in real time by real actors, and features characters who have gone insane. "Within the hospital are overlords who have taken their menial tasks of everyday life and exploded them and become these super villains," Armstrong said.
The overlords include characters named Censor, who bans all books and media, Oceanographer, who hates land and wants to create a world of water, and Imposter, who represents religious and political figures who don the appropriate persona to fit the tenor of the time.
"It's kind of a One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest meets a superhero comic book," Armstrong said.
"We're taking some of the [ideas] that stemmed from the '80s self-help movement, that you have to redefine yourself in order to make what you do more important in the world, and exaggerating that to an absurd level," co-writer Kriese said.
"We don't answer it, but we do raise the question of whether you should be content with doing nothing in your day," Kriese said. "Is it okay to just be mediocre or should you always strive to be better than who you are."
Speaking of sitting on your ass and doing nothing, welcome to Loaded, Michael Burgess' new play, which opens this weekend at the Insurgo Theater Movement in Anaheim Hills.
"It encapsulates the pop culture mindset with a bunch of ne'er-do-well, pot-smoking stoner guys who sit around and play way too many video games and watch way too much TV," producer John Beane said. "There's a light-hearted comedy feel to it but [their lives] are threatened by an impending marriage that threatens to break up the whole vibe."
Insurgo's Friday TV-like talk show, Kill Your Television, runs just two more weekends before breaking for four weeks. At $5, it's still the best deal in town. Buoyed—or perhaps driven insane—by the success of KYTV, Beane says the troupe is currently developing a mystery retro theater night, for Saturday midnights. It'll spoof classic Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew stuff.
Pass the bong, Shaggy.
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Extensions of the non-phallic kind: the Hunger Artists has extended its critically acclaimed production of Sweeney Todd through Aug. 17. We liked it, but The Orange County Register didn't. Then again, we smell much better, so fuck them. Also, the Laguna Playhouse has extended its Monday night showings of Late Night Catechism through Oct. 6.
Rumor mill: an all-female version of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross is in the works by the troupe either known, or formerly known, as Ask Kevin Productions. And finally, while we were told several months ago to keep this under wraps, we're getting calls from bar owners and actors asking us why we haven't reported it, and we're mightily pissed off about people thinking we're not in the know when we are very much in the know thank you very fucking much, so, here's the scoop: the Vanguard Theatre Ensemble, which has been looking for a new home for more than a year, is close to finalizing plans to move in to a storefront theater on Wilshire Boulevard in downtown Fullerton. No word yet on when the new theater will actually open, but we do know what the first play will most likely be: local playwright Johnna Adams' new play, In the Absence of Angels.
•What the Butler Saw, Grove Theater Centers' Gem Theater, 12852 Main St., Garden Grove, (714) 741-9555. Opens Sat. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m. Through Aug. 23. $21.50-$25.50, $5 off for seniors and students. Lower-priced ($15) previews Thursday and Friday of this week. •Hospital Overlord, Cal State Long Beach Players' Theatre, 1250 Bellflower Blvd., Long Beach, (562) 985-7000. Opens Fri. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m. Through Aug. 23. $13-$15. •Loaded, Insurgo Theater Movement, 4883 E. La Palma, Ste. 506, Anaheim Hills, (714) 517-7798. Opens Fri. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. Through Aug. 31. $12-$15.