Photo by Ashley Randall
Actors’ Gang Theatre
As part of my students’ final project at the end of a semester teaching 20th-century plays and playwrights, I always offer extra credit if they can write a mini-essay speculating why I chose the five plays we study in depth, beginning with Chekhov’s 1904 “comedy” The Cherry Orchard and finishing the semester examining Tracy Lett’s 2007 contemporary masterpiece August: Osage County.
If any of them realize my subtle point is that over the century between the time those two great literary masterpieces were first presented, nothing much has changed—and that our species is as messed up and incapable of learning lessons from our past as we were 100 years ago—their grades go up considerably.
The pre-curtain recorded greeting accompanying Tim Robbins and Adam Simon’s outrageous 1985 farce Violence: The Misadventures of Spike Spangle, Farmer, currently being revived at Robbins’ always groundbreaking Actors’ Gang, asks us to turn off our cellphones and locate the nearest exits in case of fire or the total collapse of the American democracy. Somehow, after the initial laughs subside, there’s a palpable air of dread that hangs over the audience all these years later when such an idea is not that unthinkable.
Even without a bizarre yellow cotton candy wig and tacky red tie hanging down to his teenytiny testies, it’s not hard to realize the clown-white-faced Maximilian Enormous, leading player in Robbins and Simon’s comedia dell’arte-inspired satire blasting militarism and media manipulation, immediately reminds us of our dear Celebrity Appresident Donald J. Douchebag, who back in the mid-80s when this production first debuted was probably busy losing his first billion and backrupting one of his early business enterprises.
Max (splendid Gang stalwart Will Thomas McFadden, who in his heavily-kohled white face resembles Dwight Frye as Renfield) earnestly insists he isn’t a monster simply because his ridiculously profitable conglomerate Maximillian Enterprises “put the ME in America” and he swears he doesn’t want to use his wealth and power to interfere with the laws of nature—as long as no one gets in the way of his obsession to live forever.
The irony of this character, who so bigly conjures our Traitor-Tot-in-Chief, is he was created 30-something years ago. Violence was first presented by the Gang way back then, originally directed by its co-author himself, their prolific founder and artistic director. Of course, political corruption, corporate greed, and the obscenity of celebrity is hardly a new theme in underground theatre; to the contrary, it’s the major part of what made the four-and-a-half century old comedia such a significant part of the history and development of dramatic literature as we know it.
Still, Robbins and Simon might have had a crystal ball when they sat down to noodle out Violence, a nagging windmillian quest that made them feel obligated to warn us of what might come to be. Through the wackiness and absurdity of the situations and performances, so splendidly fleshed out in the direction of Bob Turton, there lurks an urgent three decade-old message beyond the humor. Sorry to say, no one back then seemed to listen.
Spike Spangle and his wife Flora (Tom Szymanski and Andrea Monte Warren) are simple farmers, struggling to stay afloat in a dying profession as they expect their first child. Turned down by a dastardly villainous banker (director Turton, another of the Gang’s resident geniuses) for a loan to help them get through their crisis, Spike at his lowest point is chosen randomly to join a collective of both real-life and fictional celebrities—including Superman, Sly Stallone as Rambo, Elmer Fudd, Anson Williams, and “little Mary Lou Retton”—to be sent off into the cosmos on Maximillian Enterprises’ Elon Musk/Jeff Bazos-esque Celebrity Space Shuttle (I told you Robbins and Simon had a crystal ball) to become the first farmer in space.
Accompanied by a shitload of money, this offer is the answer for which Spike has prayed, the proudest thing that has happened to him since 1973 when he had his picture taken during the International Year of the Farmer, although Flora is far more wary and suspicious of his potential ride off into the galaxy.
What is untold is that Max is conspiring in the mission with the greedily self-serving leaders of the U.S. military who plan to blow up the spacecraft as a convenient way to start a war in the Mideast, the personal sacrifice of these untrained celeb astronauts paving the way for the dastardly CEO and the boys of the Pentagon to unleash the most powerful superweapon in the history of our country—which, as Jimmy Carter noted recently, has been involved in one profitable war after another for all but 16 years of A'murka's 243-year history.
Of course, the drooling generals leering and sticking their tongues out from under Erhard Stiefel’s unsettling expressionless masks see their mission as honorable, made even more acceptable by asking their spiritual guide the Reverend (Jeremie Loncka) to say a prayer for the doomed otherworldly mission is perfectly chosen to reflect their own goals, ending in “…and keep them safe from Communism, even in space.”
David Robbins’ musical choices, from pop tunes to TV jingles from the era when Violence first debuted are golden, as is video editor Peter Lazarus’ running montage of bad space movies and popular commercials selling, selling, selling us lemmings anything we were dumb enough to buy.
The cast is, as always for the Gang, insanely committed and uniformly unstoppable in the range of their antics and movement, with McFadden particularly brilliant as Max and Stephanie Pinnock a standout as his over-the-top yet bloodless girlfriend welcoming the Spangles to the CEO’s quintessentially grand but vapidly soulless Hollywood party. Warren and Szymanski are excellent as the everyman famers, the only performers onstage without a mask or makeup—that is until Spike succumbs to the celebrity to which he is tantalized to join.
Turton’s staging is spot-on and uncannily true to the original material throughout, his directorial debut on the Gang’s mainstage beautifully augmented by his turn as a disheveled, incoherent, coke-addicted Superman furious that the current depiction of himself back then was only chosen because his last name was Reeve.
As Turton writes in his program notes, “Bringing [Violence: The Misadventures of Spike Spangle, Farmer] back to life represents not only an opportunity to pay homage to our roots as a company, but also to look back and realize that the conflicts, scandals, heroes, and villains of that time are the same threats to our culture, society, and entire civilization today. Hold onto your armrests as we accelerate this theatre to 88 miles per hour, engage the flux capacitor in the lighting booth, and unleash a 1.21 gigawatt torrent of 1985 Actors’ Gang Rocket Sauce!” I for one, could not be more grateful they did.
Now, grant me a well-meaning personal aside:
Although I miss getting paid, as I did for so many years for my reviews, the thing I love most about writing for my own website is I don’t have to adhere to any rules of journalism and AP Style that always hampered my work in print media. Except for my weekly column which ran for 21 years in Entertainment Today, where I could express myself however I wanted as long as my copy filled the empty space around the ads (prompting my friend John Wimbs to once dub me the Dorothy Parker of the West Coast), using “I” in a piece or relating my thoughts to my own personal experience was strictly verboten. When I was an editor myself, I didn’t change or deflate any of my writers’ opinions; I only corrected their punctuation, grammar, and misspelled words. This was not a luxury afforded me for a long time. Now I’m poorer but far more content.
Which is a lead-in to say something about Tim Robbins I never could have related in a more professional venue. This man, someone I’m proud to say has become a friend over the years mainly because of my devotion to the relentless social advocacy of his theatre company, is a hero to me. He has never been someone who shutthefuckup about his personal beliefs and opinions in order to please—or I should say not displease—the powers-that-be in our fickle and rule-demanding industry who can so easily make or break a career.
The Actors’ Gang, Tim’s 38-year-old personal passion project that has taken on the establishment and the dangers of conservatism since its inception in 1981, has proven that fact repeatedly, especially considering the many original scripts and like-minded productions, many of them touring literally all over the world, he has himself contributed to the cause without fear or regard for professional backlash.
Add in his company’s Prison Project, which brings art as a redemptive tool to incarcerated men, women, and children in 12 California prisons, and their Education Department, helping public school kids to discover a new confidence, creativity, and most of all respect for one another, and if I were religious I’d put his name in the hat for some kind of modernday artistic sainthood. The clear decency inherent in Tim Robbins’ activism in no way is linked to any kind of ulterior motive; it’s just who he is in a most elemental way.
Opening night of Violence, as we were entering the theatre, Tim was helping an elderly lady in a walker navigate the Gang’s steep stairs and get to her seat without mishap. My humor sometimes is too spontaneous and without filter and, as we greeted one another, in jest I said conspiratorially in his ear, “Thinking about your liability insurance, are you?”
Tim looked suddenly stricken. “No, no” he quickly answered, “I just want to be sure everyone is comfortable.” I felt kinda awful through the rest of the evening, but in retrospect, that’s just the kind of man this guy is—although for us mere mortals, his unswerving generosity of spirit and caring nature can sometimes make one feel a bit humbled in the presence of his goodness, not to mention his personal courage in his art to call a spade a spade.
I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but although most anyone interested enough to still be reading this and/or to be interesting in offering support to the humanitarianism and activism of Tim Robbins and his Actors’ Gang, I assume is also someone who constantly tries to be an honorable and productive member of our downward-spiraling and majorly fucked-up society, I think something deserves to be noted once again.
We are all of us done in by one major flaw in our genetic makeup, it seems to me. There’s a constant battle in our journey as human beings to think beyond ourselves and fight one huge flaw in our collective humanity: the need to feel superior to someone else. Even more importantly, we have to recognize and not blame others around us for where we now find ourselves in our species’ evolution.
“These are not actors,” we’re told in so many recent TV commercials. “They are real people.”
In Violence: The Misadventures of Spike Spangle, Farmer, those creatively unstoppable Actors’ Gang members sweating off their weirdly wonderful kabuki makeup and flicking their tongues out from under Stiefel’s hauntingly creepy masks are not just actors either. They are us. We are them. It’s a shame it’s always so hard to remember that, to recognize and live with that, even as we try our best at every opportunity to defy the shortcomings inherent in our own human nature.
THROUGH June 22: Actors’ Gang Theatre, 9070 Venice Blvd., Venice. 310.838.4264 or theactorsgang.com.