So My Grandmother Died, Blah Blah Blah is Paul Tei's funny, trippy mind blast
If you like shows that combine witty comedy, textually dense psychodrama, trippy-ass quests of intellectual expression, philosophical meanderings, and comedic kitsch, Mad Cat Theatre Company's So My Grandmother Died, Blah Blah Blah is the show for you.
Written and directed by Mad Cat's Paul Tei, the play accomplishes all of the above through an array of batshit characters you'd normally run into while tripping on shrooms. The kinetic, frenzied production plunges the audience into the mind of a struggling comedy writer trudging through the emotional baggage of her personal life, her relationship with her family, and her floundering career, all while grappling with a stubborn case of writer's block as she pens a eulogy for her dead grandmother.
Overwrought plot synopsis? You bet! And that's only the tip of the crazy.
Polly (Melissa Almaguer), the struggling writer, has flown from Hollywood, California, to Hollywood, Florida, for her grandmother's funeral. As she opens her laptop to begin writing the eulogy, the audience becomes Alice in Polly's Wonderland of imagination. Her subconscious is our guide into a world of lost love, Wikipedia entries, and the need to unload a crap-ton of emotional baggage. Polly's mind is a whirling, harried minefield of voices and personalities that come from her own Greek chorus, a trio of "deconstructionists" named Troy (Troy Davidson), Anne (Anne Chamberlain), and Ricky (Ricky Waugh). Those voices in your head? They're people dressed in 19th-century garb. Oh, and a pirate.
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The deconstructionists, who hilariously morph from one personality to another, feed the audience a healthy dose of information about an eclectic array of subjects through monologues and soliloquies — from Sylvia Plath (The Bell Jar!) to Ezra Pound (anti-Semite!) to an obscure G.I. Joe character named Barbecue ("Knowing is half the battle"!). They all somehow relate to the story.
As Polly sifts through her mental encyclopedia, information mostly gathered from the Internet (she is a 21st-century girl, after all), she tries to overcome mental and emotional hurdles. Her grandmother died, her career has stalled, and her boyfriend abruptly left her. It's the ingredients for the perfect shitstorm that has her in a funk while her family is relying on her to come through with that damn eulogy.
Through it all, Polly is looking for her Hedda Gabler moment — a breakthrough for the modern heroine and a way to get rid of that nagging writer's block. (Gabler is a character from a 19th-century play. She is considered the female Hamlet. So My Grandmother Died is a wealth of information, I tell ya.)
Her struggle with the eulogy becomes a source of friction between Polly and her two older sisters. There's Monica (Erin Joy Schmidt), a new mother who hears all of Polly's thoughts because she can read people's minds. And there's Annabella (Deborah L. Sherman), a modern dancer who can read people's souls. Her sisters mean well, but they get in the way as Polly tries to sort through some very personal stuff. Meanwhile, their mother (Beverly Blanche) is a rock, while Dad (George Schiavone) keeps to himself as he listens to Miami Heat games on the radio, occasionally blurting out gems like, "I'll tell you why Miami is great: corrupt government, a failing school system, and the Miami Heat!"
The deconstructionists dart all over the stage, making sense of Polly's plight for the audience, taking on multiple guises, and expounding on her mind-blasts, from Zsa Zsa Gabor to Oprah. They reference Daniel Tosh and Inception, and they sit back and nod whenever Polly's dad yells out, "Goddamn Chalmers!" in frustration as he listens to Heat games (he is clearly my favorite character).
Tei's aim is to explore the Internet's impact on our lives and reveal how communication has been stifled. He channels our real struggles with pain, loss, family, love, and resolve through Polly's mind's eye.
The knowledge bombs dropped on the audience are a clever device, making the play a sort of organic Wikipedia. Watching the action unfold, I realized each of our lives is essentially an unfinished Wikipedia entry. And this truth aids Polly in marshalling the inspiration to write about her departed grandmother. It's a tool to help her find the answer to the grandest question: "What does it all mean?"
Throughout the production, the characters get into the habit of breaking the fourth wall and making the audience a part of the performance. Mad Cat went to great lengths in its stage design to bring home the illusion — wrapping the makeshift theater in black curtains with written pages haphazardly strewn across them, and upside-down umbrellas filled with discarded papers hanging from the ceiling. It's like being sucked into a Pink Floyd album cover.
Toward the conclusion of So My Grandmother Died, one of the characters confronts Polly and says, "I won't mind it so much if these people [the audience members] walk away from this play and say, 'What was that?' But what I do mind is if they walk out saying, 'What the fuck was that?'"
Neither happened, but it's still some trippy shit that drives the message home. The madness eventually subsides, and we all find our Hedda Gabler moment.
Mad Cat Theatre Company and especially writer/director Paul Tei understand that theater doesn't resonate without a nuanced script, fascinating characters, a story that's daring and original, and well-timed Oprah jokes.
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