Mad Cat Theatre Gives Us a Mixtape
The mixtape cannot achieve perfection. Place Adrian Belew side by side with the X-Ray Specs, and you might draw undue attention to Belew's geekiness. Pair Patti Smith with the Rolling Stones, and she might come off as a blowhard. On almost any mixtape, at least one song will fail to connect. What a mixtape can be is dynamic. If it's good, it can be illuminating. And every now and again, in spite of its necessary flaws, it can be transcendent.
Mad Cat Theatre's Mixtape is one such work — flawed and gorgeous, with the absurd nestling comfortably beside the sublime. The show is a series of skits, poems, and films penned by eight artists, ranging from the famously weird (local playwright and comic book enthusiast Marco Ramirez) to the weirdly famous (Jeff Tweedy, the alleged mad genius of Wilco). Some of the bits suck. Some of them are among the most soul-expanding pieces of theater you could ever hope to see.
Mixtape feels like a good mixtape; you can tell from the selections' divergent subjects and tones that their authors were working in ignorance of context. But there is still a feeling of intention, of a compiler's sensibility. You get the sense that somebody — in this case, probably director/actor Paul Tei — is using someone else's words to tell you something specific.
If you go, you are unlikely to care about the message until a good ways into the show. Mixtape's first two selections are awful — picture a compilation beginning with a one-two punch of Rod McKuen and X, and you kind of get the idea. "The DJ Lights a Cigarette," a poem performed by wunderkind actor Erik Fabregat (who appears to know exactly how ridiculous he is being), begins the evening with what sounds like somebody's leftovers from a poetry slam in Nebraska. Then a wall breaks open and we're in somebody's back yard, and it's a bright summer day in deepest suburbia. This, a skit by Megan Mostyn-Brown called "4th of July," imagines two young would-be lovers trying to enjoy a first kiss in a kiddie pool in the minutes before a nuclear holocaust. As an idea, the play has potential. In practice, actress Sofia Citarella is far too cutesy; she comes off less like a young woman in love than a five-year-old playing doctor.
But then something — who knows what — switches gears, and Mixtape begins to make sense. There are two threads running through most of the show's remaining selections: cars is one; music is the other. And even the worst of the remainders seem to have something to say about them. "Adult Head," a collection of sometimes-inscrutable poems by Jeff Tweedy, glimpses inside the worried brains of a bunch of grownups at a rock and roll show. They're clapping, shouting, and loving the night, but inside they're obsessing over regrets, unfulfilled obligations, lost loves, and past betrayals.
Boring as a few of the poems are, their cumulative effect is to make the grownups' presence at the rock show seem brave and necessary. Rock music is their stand against everything that separates them from excitement, joy, innocence, redemption — all the passion and living they had imagined for themselves when they were kids. "She," a photomontage of Citarella putting around her house, is set against the voice of Tei drolly reciting the lyrics to Beatles love songs.
At first the exercise looks like a mistake. Here we have deliberately ordinary, often-unflattering photographs of an apparently random girl, and Tei expects us to extrapolate from them — what? Romantic longing? Not happening. But after a minute, you realize that whenever you hear these songs, you imagine they express feelings about somebody important to you; this is what gives them their power. Imagining a relative stranger (Tei) feeling this way about another stranger (Citarella) dramatically illuminates how incredibly subjective and private love really is.
I might be reading too much into that piece, but it's impossible to read too much into the closing segments of each act (in the program, the acts are called "sides"). Mixtape's soul comes into the open during these two scenes, and both of them made me cry. In "Move On or Sondheim 54," by Michael McKeever, an average New Yorker who is usually indifferent to art (and especially high art) is reduced to tears by a Sondheim show. His wife of one year, played with perfect cocktail-party huffiness by Erin Joy Schmidt, is deeply embarrassed, even though she's the one who ordinarily "appreciates" things such as Sondheim. Over the next year, the New Yorker, played by Joe Kimble, is gradually transformed by the Sondheim music. He can't articulate the songs' meaning, but somehow they allow him to live more intensely. One year later, on his second anniversary, his wife says something while he takes in Sondheim on his iPod. "Are you listening?" she asks him. He removes the headphones and says, "Yes, I am." And he is.
It's a realist take on the power of music — how one song, for reasons nobody else will ever grasp, can illuminate an entire life and make it seem not only tolerable but also good and eminently worth living (for this writer, the relevant song is a live version of Paul Simon's "The Coast," recorded in Central Park).
The last skit of the night is a surrealist take on the same thing, called "The Wereloaves of Brickell Avenue." A wereloaf, of course, is a man who, one night of the month, transforms into Meat Loaf, né Marvin Lee Aday, the hefty rocker who turned Jim Steinman's cheesetastic, bombastic songs into vast, swirling epiphanies of teen romance, lust, and wonder. Kimble plays the man in his non-Loaf guise — beaten, shy, and locked into an office job he despises. When he becomes Meat Loaf, played by Fabregat (who looks like he has never had such fun in his whole damn life), he is a creature of myth and motorcycles, love and one-night stands, danger, adventure, and 19th-century tuxedos. It's ridiculous and innocent and beautiful. It's also the funniest 15 minutes of theater I've ever seen. I felt sorry for the broken little man portrayed by Kimble. But as long as he has that one night of the month, he'll be just fine.
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