Ever go to see a band, and the drums start motoring, the guitars crank up, the bass begins to thud, you feel your head starting to move up and down, and you're caught up in the feeling that you're about to be rocked… but then, as the song goes on, you find yourself waiting, and then you're still waiting, and the hook doesn't come… and they play another song, and then another, each one louder and more raucous than the last, and you realize that, although the band has all the raw energy it needs and more, and solid musicianship too, somehow… the songs just don't go anywhere? And yet the band keeps on playing, fruitlessly.
It can happen in theater too, and such is the case with Lavaman, Casey Wimpee's literally visceral new play, currently running through July 18 at the Ohio Theatre as part of Soho Think Tank's Ice Factory 2009 summer festival. The title character is an animated monster created by Arnie (Michael Mason) for his comic book—or, as he insists, "graphic novel." The live action is interspersed with a number of amusing Lavaman animations, but the one it opens with is the most telling: Lavaman's cartoon bout of painful, multicolored flatulence and diarrhea turns out to presage the play's logorrhea.
First it's Gill (Cole Wimpee), an alcoholic-turned-vegetarian with carpal tunnel syndrome and an aching back, who can't stop ranting and shouting about the punk rock band he used to have with Arnie's dead twin brother. (That's right, a dead twin brother. Everyone here has dead parent or sibling issues.) Gill, it seems at first, is supposed to be one of those Lanford Wilson-style flame-on characters who torches other people out of their complacency. But his voluble energy doesn't drive the plot or change anyone's life; there's mostly void around him–lots of sound and fury, not signifying much. The script has to rely too heavily on musical references and other pop-culture signifiers to score characterization points on stage or laughs from the audience.
Enter Dino (Adam Belvo), the third member of this sad triumvirate, a former bandmate who has "sold out" and gotten rich by day-trading (it's 1999). Dino is a larger-than-life personality, even more so than Gill. Dino’s own issues–his have both parental and sibling elements–have propelled him on a globe-trotting carnivorous rampage. Now he's back, hoping to celebrate his birthday with his old buddies in gruesome style. But Dino, like Lavaman, is a cartoon character; his preening and howling drive away any empathy we might have started to feel for stuck-in-the-past Gill or creatively blocked Arnie.
Told in a series of flashbacks, the story zeroes in on the events leading up to Dino's protracted, violent end. But unlike the punk rock songs the characters listen to and talk about, the play lacks a hook, for all its vehement verbosity and claustrophobic fury. In trying so hard to be provocative, this much too long play ends up provoking only exhaustion and a mild nausea.
Photo by Kalli Newman.