The notion of “experimental theatre” is an extremely fluid one; yesterday’s experiment is today’s common practice is tomorrow’s cliché. But great theatrical experimenters leave a legacy in terms of both practical theatrical vocabulary and a kind of “up yours” approach to playmaking that demands and rewards taking risks. Klub (pronounced “kloob”), the terrific Actor’s Gang revival of Mitch Watson’s absurdist riff on the self-centered and often delusional nature of those who choose, whether they have talent or not, to entertain for a living, is a de facto homage to any number of theatrical giants, upon whose shoulders the witty playwright, sharp director and pitch-perfect cast clearly stand.
Klub invokes elements of (among others) Sartre’s dreary and over-rated No Exit, A Chorus Line, Antonin Artaud’s “Theatre of Cruelty,” and Brecht’s early presentational rubrics (for instance, periodically reminding the audience that they are indeed watching a play in order to preserve the engagement of the intellect…neat theory, doesn’t usually work, Klub being an exception to the rule). The story concerns a group of theatrical hacks all trapped in a run-down theatre, all auditioning not for a role, but for the chance to escape. The audience quickly learns that the performers, who include a vaudeville duo, a child TV star turned Shakespearean wannabe, a starlet so desperate that she will surgically alter herself to get a role, and the world’s angriest and most depressed French mime, have been playing out this desperate ritual for years, and that the chances of getting out are pretty much slim and none. And yet, the show must indeed go on, and the audience is invited to witness the never-ending spectacle of each act trying to be entertaining enough to win the director’s praise, and thus a ticket out of hell. And that’s where the fun begins.
Watson’s writing achieves, for the most part, a strong balance between theatrical spectacle and the characters’ often-horrifying personal stories. We learn that the performers are trapped in Klub not because they are bad actors, but rather, because they are bad people, driven by greed, ego, jealousy and all the other aspects of human nature that make us such a fun, lovable lot. Given the darkness of the subject matter, Watson wisely keeps the humor amped up throughout the play, be it gross-out (the starlet’s self-inflicted boob job), dialogue (“Celebrity is the universal language…of peace.”) or the simple absurdity of the character’s self-delusions. The ending is somewhat predictable and, again, borrows liberally from some fairly obvious theatrical antecedents, but so what? The ride was smart and funny, even if the final destination was evident way in advance of arrival.
Every actor in Klub is deserving of high praise, and watching them work together is a reminder of why actors form ensembles in the first place. Playing broadly, or as some might say, “stylistically” is a problem for many actors (yes, even the Brits). In order to serve the theatrical needs of a play like Klub, an actor must have the both the skill and chutzpah to “play it big,” while at the same time never losing sight of his character’s emotional core; lose the first, the audience is not entertained, lose the second, they don’t care. The cast of Klub beautifully managed the play’s exaggerated physical and vocal demands without taking for granted their characters’ particular forms of desperation. Standouts include Evie Peck as the grotesquely busty, eager-to-please starlet Betty Schaeffer, Joseph Grimm, as the homicidal half of the Woodnard Boys comedy duo, the wondrously bendy Emilia Herman as Dominique the French mime and Beth Tapper as Annie, the grown-up woman forever trapped in the persona of the title character of her namesake’s musical.
Director Michael Schlitt keeps the action moving with appropriately rough-hewn efficiency, and the actors’ energy level high yet well modulated. Schlitt also plays the director in Klub, and we hear his voice, Chorus Line-style, throughout the play. (His appearance towards the end of the play, and the use of his actual name is one of those Brechtian tricks I alluded to earlier; I don’t know if in this day and age it’s really possible to heighten a theatrical experience with this kind of device, but what the hell, it was still kind of fun.) The set and lights by Francois-Pierre Couture, costumes by Sarah Brown and hilarious songs by David Arnott all contributed to a fast and furious 90 minutes that went by in a heartbeat.
Klub closes July 12, a week earlier than originally scheduled due to actors’ commitments. Run out and catch it while you can.
Klub is presented by The Actor’s Gang at The Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Boulevard, Venice. For tickets and information call 310.838-4264 or visit actorsgang.com