Monday, November 14, 2016

Wish I'd Forgotten About This One Too

Back in April, I posted about my regrets that I'd had a total senile moment and forgot to attend a live play that I'd already paid for. It was a rendition of "Hello, Dolly!" performed by the Rollins College theater group and being a big fan of the Streisand film I'd been hoping to see the Broadway version and kicked myself for not attending.

Well, Saturday night at work I was checking my email and saw that the same troupe was doing a performance of "Upton Abbey" promising to be a unique and hilarious improv send up of television's "Downton Abbey." And the next show time was Sunday at 4:00 pm. "Perfect" I thought. I bought my ticket online securing a "box seat" for $20. Well, all the seats were $20 so that should have been the first red flag.

"Oh this should be rich!" I thought, thinking of all the creative ways they could spoof the tropes of the series. Will they have a riotous "Hide the dead lover raucous?" emulating the whole Mr. Pamuk incident with Lady Mary and her maids scurrying around the Abbey halls with the poor deceased paramour. Will they comically mimic the back stairs machinations of O'Brien and Thomas? Would they smirkingly have some ominous musical note playing (like the well-known funeral dirge) whenever someone mentioned driving an automobile or being treated by the village doctor when ill? All these really great ideas spun through my head thinking of the fun the director could have doing this.

My disappointment set in right away. The set design was bland and unimaginative. The costumes were anachronistic and looked like what they probably were: thrift store "vintage" items. And the actors were horrible. Sorry to be so blunt especially as they're all college kids (for the most part) but really...vocal fry afflicted millennial accents trying painfully to mimic either high-brow Gentrified English or low-brow "North Country" accents. Poor enunciation, poor projection, confusing or distracting pantomime, modern American word choices, inaccurate body posture and hand gestures, etc, etc, etc. They had no business being up there and getting $20 a head.

Worse though was the theming, writing and direction. The characters and their setting had only a glancing similarity to the same on the TV show. They used similar sounding names and similar-ish traits like the stuffy old-fashioned butler and the overly sensitive red-head daughter. But that's where the hommage to Downton ended. The premise was to involve the audience interactively by having options to vote on plot points and lines and charter direction before the performance and during intermission to influence the focus of the dialogue and plot. Big problem though since, well, there was no dialog or plot. The whole performance was, reportedly, improvised and based on the way it panned out throughout the first act, I can believe it. But improv is a fickle thing. Players have to have a very strong sense of timing and a natural talent for comedy. Otherwise you get what we got...a fucking mess.

They attempted to portray 30 separate characters among 15 players. The dual role for everyone in itself wasn't the problem...some like the guy playing both the Lord of the Manor and the Head Butler did it pretty well (turns out he was the faculty writer and director so it's no wonder he was the best of the bunch) but most muddled their accents (oh those horrible, horrible fake accents) and portrayals.

And why so complex? Why 30 characters? Well, according to their theme, the performances were composed to follow a narrative that would arc through the succession of show times and advance the character plots throughout. Since the audiences each night dictated which characters they opted to have as lead or feature, there existed a wide array of different characters to choose from. I'm sure the writer-director looked at this premise on paper once he thought it through but in practice it turned out to be an utter mess. Unless you went to more than one showing, you wouldn't "get" the progression of the story. What I saw, rather, was just a freaking mumble jumble of disjointed vignettes that had no rhyme or reason.

But thankfully I didn't see it for long. After an arduous and painful hour of not laughing at the weak puns, G-rated lover trysts and badly-executed pantomimes I, like many others apparently, utilized the intermission as an opportunity to enact a rapid escape and walked out without a second thought.

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