The Foundry Theatre conjure up theatrical magic
To call Major Bang a magic show would be unfair to its dramatic elements; to call it a thriller would be too dismissive of its comedy. It’s all those things with a heavy dose of anti-terrorist information tethering this smart, sharp production to reality.
Performers Maggie Hoffman and Steve Cuiffo are already on stage when the doors to Emmett Robinson Theatre open. The stage is set with props and costume items that will be used in the show; Cuiffo performs some of his trademark card tricks; a mirror shows his sleights and slip-ups. It’s a big theatrical nothing-up-their-sleeves that hides the surprises to come, disarms the audience, and instantly makes them feel involved in the play. This connection’s increased when Cuiffo passes his cards around the auditorium for shuffling. Once they’re returned to him, they become part of the storytelling and an explosive yarn ensues.
Bang is partly a riff on an old acting exercise where a group of props are woven into an improvised story. Here, the props include a Scouting handbook, a DVD and a spiral notebook written by “The Kid,” a boy scout who’s instructed by his crazed Akela to steal radioactive material from a nearby plant. Working at the plant are the Kid’s father, Frank Farmer, and Frank’s boss Rachel Marron.
The Kid steals his father’s ID badge and sneaks into a secure section of the plant, setting off an alarm and a chain reaction of events that could end in cataclysm.
But that little plot summary doesn’t do justice to all the other stuff hinging on the slim storyline. Hoffman and Cuiffo play all the characters, sometimes in the same scene, often to comic effect. Cuiffo changes costumes in half a breath, playing Farmer as an average Joe and the Kid as a disgruntled teen. He’s not so busy switching from one to the other that he isn’t able to introduce fascinating subtexts into his scenes — parental insecurity reflecting national security, petty personal conflicts overwhelming global ones.
Cuiffo revels in his role of Major Bang the scoutmaster, played as a cross between General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) and Group Captain Mandrake (Peter Sellers) in Dr. Strangelove. He’s good in a bit as Lenny Bruce cracking wise on the current War, and he loads the show with legerdemain; vanishing acts, invisible threads, impossible knots. He does everything except saw Hoffman in half.
Hoffman is no mere magician’s assistant. She controls the flow of the show with her everywoman narration, slipping into the character of a tour guide competing with video clips for attention and Farmer’s boss, standing on a stool in a visual signifier of her superiority. She also presents a few instructive spots on Government-advised precautions to take in the event of a terrorist attack (wrap yourself in plastic sheeting), and the sound and lurking presence of radiation in our everyday lives.
Playwright Kirk Lynn packs a lot of relevant themes into a tight 80-minute running time, yet the show never seems rushed or overpowering. When the pace gets frenetic it’s for comic purposes, and the performers have room to stop the show for applause or to change gears with a new scene. They also take a bunch of subjects that people don’t really want to talk about, like dirty bomb attacks, the systemized irradiation of processed food, the 652,000 Iraqi casualties in the War on Terror and the narrative inconsistencies of Kevin Costner’s The Bodyguard. Then they weave them into a consistently entertaining show that steadfastly refuses to patronize the audience.
Lynn knows that we have an innate desire to piece story elements together, looking for connections that will create a cohesive tale. He toys with that desire and ultimately satisfies it, using prerequisite elements of narration, video and illusion.
Perhaps the actors are used to working with a smaller stage space than the one at the Emmett Robinson, because they only use the upper half for most of the show. Only on a couple of occasions (a semaphore flag dance and the Lenny Bruce act) do they move forward and get closer to the audience. Not that they have to use the whole stage the whole time, but in a production that tackles the challenge of reducing indiscriminate acts of mass violence to a size palatable for theatre audiences, a couple more ventures downstage wouldn’t hurt.
Major Bang is funny and incisive, raising important issues without getting preachy or worthier-than-thou. It makes pop cultural references to thriller, comedy, and romance formulae while simultaneously trying something fresh. It’s the kind of inspirationally-inventive theatre production that Spoleto needs to encourage. It sets a high standard for visiting acts and local companies as well.
Major Bang Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Dirty Bomb • Spoleto Festival USA • (1 hour 20 mins) • $30 • June 2 at 9 p.m.; June 3 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. • Emmett Robinson Theatre, 54 St. Philip St. • 579-3100