Monday, August 30, 2010

A (Dr.) Horrible Play

So, I got to see a stage adaptation of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog last night. It was horribly amusing. Seriously though, it was a fun show and nice to see the Joss Whedon fans collaborating to make something creative in tribute. They changed some things in the adaptation process, some for the better and others… not so much. The Balagan Theatre, where it took place, is a really tiny basement in Seattle. The place is pretty uncomfortable, being old, hot, and with poor seating. One really depends on the performance to be thoroughly entertaining, and it fortunately was.
The stage’s primary feature is a large TV screen, which provides background setting and other effects. Its main use is as the computer screen in which Billy (played by Eric Ankrim) records his video blog. The TV is in a big cabinet case that usually represents Billy’s workspace, but also represents the Laundromat machines, as well as other things. The rest of the stage is blank, requiring crew to carry in props for each scene.
The show begins with Billy sitting in front of the screen, speaking into a camera, much as he does in the original video. The screen in the back provides a good view of the actor for people who might not have the best seating. Now, the thing here is that the camera films him in front of the screen, which is a live recording with a half-second delay, so we end up with a strange loop of infinite Billys in the screen. While this could be a design flaw, I like that they actually incorporate the strange loop into the show. Billy glances behind him, sees the infinite series, and yelps, causing a humorous infinite chain of yelps.
The special effects are pretty cheap, but that just gives the show a campy appeal. The courier van is played by a large man who walks on stage with a 2D van going halfway up his legs and says, “Beep! Beep!” Billy then controls the van with a PlayStation controller he’s calling a phone. It’s consciously silly in its lowbudgetness.
Because the source material is only about 42 minutes long, they updated the show to make it longer by incorporating material from the musical commentary Commentary!. This works pretty well. Before the show officially starts, a guy who calls himself Steve introduces the play. This actor is Bill Williams, who is playing Steve Berg, the original actor who portrayed Groupie #3 (played by Ryan McCabe in this performance) as well as a satirical version of himself in Commentary!. This intro plays off of the lisping routine in Commentary!, and the character Steve makes as many lisped S’s as can be crammed into his dialogue. A plant in the audience, actually stage manager Laura Lindle, asks him if he can sing a song, and he breaks into “Steve’s Song”. In addition to this Steve-centric intro, Moist (played by Brian Lange) gets his solo, which was originally going to be in the movie but was removed for pacing reasons. Right as Act 3 is about to start, the groupies interrupt the story to sing songs about themselves. This latter part uses the songs “Ten Dollar Solo”, “All About Me”, and “Nobody’s Asian in the Movies”.
I have to criticize the way “Nobody’s Asian in the Movies” was handled. While the original context of the song uses it as a straightforward criticism of institutional racism, the adaptation decay makes it seem more like some angry ranting that should be dismissed because it doesn’t make sense. First of all, the lead-in has the Asian Groupie #1 claiming that the white Groupie #2 is being racist for what doesn’t seem like a legitimate reason. Basically, “All About Me” ends with Groupies #2 and #3 yelling “It’s all about ME!” at the top of their lungs, and Groupie #1 starts yelling at them to be quiet. She whimpers and buries her face against Groupie #2’s chest before pulling away and holding her face, all the while making sobbing sounds. Groupie #2 asks if she’s crying, and Groupie #1 angrily says “I’m not crying! My eyes are just shaped this way!” and launches into “Nobody’s Asian in the Movies”.
Um, when did anyone indicate that they thought she was crying because of her eyes? We couldn’t even see her eyes for most of the time she was otherwise indicating she was crying with her body language and vocal emissions. Couldn’t there be a better lead-in? I mean, off the top of my head, they could have had Groupie #1 asking the other groupies to finish up the song so they could get back to the story, and the Groupies could ask if she’s tired because of her eyes and then at least it would make sense. Maybe the “DRector” (also Eric Ankrim) just didn’t know how to simulate a racist stereotype, but this comes off as Groupie #1 just being an overly sensitive person of color.
The way the song “Nobody’s Asian in the Movies” ends is another invalidation of the song’s criticism. In the original Commentary!, Maurissa Tancharoen (the Asian groupie) says her dad is a “nerdy, funny scientist”. In response, Jed Whedon asks, “Isn’t your dad a transpo guy?” Maurissa Tancharoen continues with “Oh, like an Asian could do that! I’ll just sit in my corner and play my violin and… math.” This seems to me like clear sarcasm to emphasize the way Asian people are stereotyped. At the very least, it’s ambiguous. In the stage adaptation, however, Groupie #1 says her dad is a “dorky, funny scientist… Oh, shit!” This removes the ambiguity and plays it as clear that Groupie #1 is just being oversensitive because Asians really do the stereotypes, which is a bit racist. I suspect it was changed that way to make the predominately white audience feel better about having just observed a rant about racism, in that they are more able to casually dismiss it.
Anyway, the Act 3 part of the show was really good. Captain Hammer (played by Jake Groshong) walked into the audience for part of his “Everyone’s a Hero” song, and he threw a couple people’s hats into the air, which was cute. Billy walked from the entrance, through the audience, and onto the stage as part of his freezing attack. Obviously, they couldn’t have real explosions, but they had some good effects with the lighting to simulate such. Captain Hammer actually ends his song with “everyone’s a hero in their own--”, as opposed to the original ending with “their--”, which would make more sense if he were to later finish with a “WAAAAAY!”. Unfortunately, this Captain Hammer neglected to sing “WAAAAAY!” at all. :( An addition I liked, though, was Penny (played by Annie Jantzer) and Billy singing a reprise of “My Eyes” as she dies. I actually thought it was more moving than the original, where Penny just dies in mid-word, and it emphasizes how Penny always sees the good in people while Billy just gets angry.
Another addition is a greater presence of the two newscasters from the “So They Say” song, who now help provide setting all throughout the show. I like this at some points, like where they present the homelessness problem preceding Penny’s “Caring Hands” song. I’m not especially fond of the part where they announce the dedication of the superhero memorial bridge to Captain Hammer, though, because the female newscaster starts annoying the male newscaster with rather mediocre MC Hammer jokes (“Can’t touch this!”). I do like that in the part in “So They Say” when the male newscaster says “Next up, who’s gay?” we get a shot of Neil Patrick Harris on the screen.
On that note, I thought the handling of the gay Groupie #3 was pretty good. While in the original he’s fairly subdued, in the stage adaptation he’s pretty active. He and the other groupies ecstatically gush over Captain Hammer (and Billy) in a traditionally girly fashion and their sexual innuendo is a bit more suggestive than in the original video. I like the more active role and am glad they didn’t turn his being gay into a gag itself.
For an amateur production, I thought everyone did a good job. Eric Ankrim (Billy) looks enough like Neil Patrick Harris to easily slip into the role. Jake Groshong (Hammer) doesn’t look a thing like Nathan Fillion, but he captures the smarmy, cheesy voice of the character well. Annie Jantzer (Penny) isn’t exceptional, but I didn’t hate her either. I actually think Christine Nelson (Groupie #2) has the better singing voice. Go figure.
Anyway, I’ll conclude by saying that I had an overall good time, though not without a few complaints. I’d recommend it to anyone a fan of Dr. Horrible. My biggest complaint is really about the Balagan Theatre being small, hot (Moist wasn’t the only sweaty one there), and having uncomfortable seats, but that’s not really a fault with the performance itself. I won’t rush back to see it, but I might consider seeing it again if they bring it back next year or something.

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