As Twere a Careless Trifle

16. November, 2012 Theater No comments

What’s a young San Francisco hipster to do with a fancy degree and no motivation to get a real job? Well, how about invade a small, obscure and presumably defenseless island nation?

Will Hand and Jeanette Penley in Toil and Trouble. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

That’s the business plan for a trio of friends in Impact Theatre’s Toil and Trouble, the latest of a string of new works by local playwright Lauren Gunderson. The prolific 30-year-old Georgia émigré has plays coming up with half the companies in town: Shotgun Players, SF Playhouse, Crowded Fire, you name it. The Macbeth-quoting title is no mere coincidence; Toil and Trouble is the second in a series of plays loosely inspired by Shakespeare plays. The first was the spousal-abuse revenge comedy Exit, Pursued by a Bear, which served as Gunderson local debut when Crowded Fire produced it last year as part of a rolling world premiere, and the third will be The Taming, a commission in the works for that same company.

Impact Theatre’s world premiere production marks a return to the La Val’s Subterranean pizzeria-basement space for the company’s founding artistic director Josh Costello, who’s now the literary manager at Aurora Theatre Company. Anne Kendall’s set evokes a cluttered bachelor living room, the coffee table crammed with takeout cartons and Pabst Blue Ribbon cans.

Riding a scooter around the apartment in amusingly eye-offending bike shorts (costumed by Cassie Rosenbrock), Mike Delaney has the breezy buffoonery of a guy who’s always selling with nothing to back it up as Adam, who keeps brainstorming useless products with pithy rhyming names like Cotbot—“a cot that’s a robot.” “Rhyming is not innovation! And not everything needs to be a robot,” his roommate Matt says in an exasperation that seems ingrained in his character. As played by Will Hand, Matt is rumpled, cynical, high-strung, and seemingly incapable or letting a glaring inaccuracy stand without correcting it.

Both of them have the hots for their friend Beth, an aspiring TV sportscaster with anger problems. The play is set as the Giants are entering the World Series (which is to say pretty much right now, at least when it opened) and she gets fired for haranguing the whooping crowd to shut the hell up when she’s on the air. Despite Beth’s hotness, she’s oddly ready to settle for just about anybody at this point, and for some reason she’s narrowed her options to the two of them as if they’re the only guys left in the world—which is true at least in the sense that they’re the only guys in the play.

It’s Adam, of course, who comes up with the scheme of taking over a small island off the coast of Chile populated mostly by miniature vicuñas—a sort of bonsai llama—whose expensive wool will make them rich. But no one’s more gung-ho about it than Beth. Jeanette Penley’s Beth is a forceful whirlwind of commanding impatience, Machiavellian scheming, and spurt-of-the-moment bloodlust, and the deliciously evil facial expression that she strikes from time to time is just hilarious. “Feminism means I get to be evil too,” she says. Fair (and foul) enough.

Instead of the three witches of Shakespeare’s play, it’s takeout fortune cookies that prophecy all the ways things will go horribly wrong. In fact these fortunes are the same things those witches say, including references like Birnam Wood that don’t have anything to do with anything in the current plot. Turning the Macbeth references to “MattBeth” couple shorthand is a cute touch, although it’s done so in passing that it could easily be missed.

There are in fact a lot of running gags that don’t quite get a chance to start running. As funny as the play is, it feels sorely underdeveloped. As it goes on, people start speaking in lines from Macbeth more and more, even though there’s no in-story reason for them to do it at all. Once or twice would be a cute in-joke, but having the dialogue taken over entirely by another play toward the end is baffling.

Costello’s staging is brisk and high-energy, although the fast pace sometimes exacerbates the rushed, incomplete feeling of the 75-minute play. Colin Trevor’s sound design is minimal aside from dramatic classical music between scenes, including a bit of “Night on Bald Mountain.”  The performances are sometimes hysterical, in both senses of the words (both modern senses of the word, anyway—nothing to do with Victorian women’s ailments). Delaney’s particularly funny in the obligatory Banquo’s ghost scene, with a lot of stage smoke and eerie lighting by Jax Steager.

For all its rough edges, the show is awfully enjoyable as a goofy bagatelle, full of pricelessly bizarre turns of phrase, like “You suck such a big Pepsi, you know that?” or “the balls of the future are in our hands.” It’s full of beans and funny even if it signifies nothing.

Toil and Trouble
Through December 8
Impact Theatre
La Val’s Subterranean
1834 Euclid Street
Berkeley, CA

Show #107 of 2012, attended November 9.



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