KPBS AIRDATE: NOVEMBER 5, 1999
As the decade, the century and the millennium come to a close, what’s on our collective, political minds? — China; Russia and the Balkans; cyberspace and Y2K, of course. They’re all marking time in “Phenomenal Acceleration,” local playwright Tim’s West’s satirical new meditation on the millennium, where no fiction could be as bizarre as our worldwide reality. West didn’t have to wrack his brain; instead, he ransacked the Internet, working directly from the writings and broadcasts of radio weirdo Art Bell, and the trial transcripts of the U.S. versus Microsoft. No one could make this stuff up.
An Art Bell wannabe whips up a Y2K frenzy in an interview with a Bible-thumping survivalist who’s stockpiling food for the coming Armageddon. A two-headed Bill Gates, world’s richest and most ruthless reptile, feigns clueless ignorance in court. In China, a semi-American sings the blues. And, as smart and deadly bombs explode around them, Boris Yeltsin and Slobodon Milosevic play chicken, drink vodka and shoot pool.
Structured into four vignettes, more like extended “Saturday Night Live” skits, the show opens in a bunker and ends leaving us in the dark. Complete inky lightlessness. Never has blackness been so deep for so long for so many in one theater. Even the Exit lights went out. Eerie, scary feeling, coming close on the heels of that seemingly rational, totally insane interview on preparing for the millennial onslaught. Maybe it is all gonna come crashing down on us. Maybe chaos will reign. It’s all, as Slobo explains to Boris, a matter of crisis versus possibility.
Tim West loves the little ‘what ifs’ of the universe. He revels in factoids, minutia and linguistic labyrinths, and uses them for light treatment of Heavy Issues. There’s pedantry in some of the writing, which can be dry or repetitive. The 80-minute evening tends to sag in spots. Director and conceiver Ethan Feerst searches for any way to lighten and leaven, but he, too, uses a heavy hand at times. Feerst takes a different approach to each of the four pieces, and the results don’t always coalesce. But the tech work is as deliciously raucous as we expect from Sledgehammer, with a sly cynicism slipped into the expert set, lighting and sound designs.
The ensemble of seven is excellent, with standout performances, in multiple roles, by David Tierney, Cheryl Cameron and Matt Scott. Choreographer Jean Isaacs lends her unique brand of body-draping physical humor to the Microsoft trial transcripts, which, along with the dual, Tweedle Dee-and-Dum casting of Bill Gates, gives the soporific proceedings a wacky twist.
Overall, the evening isn’t as breathless as its title, “Phenomenal Acceleration,” or as entertaining as its original subtitle: “A vaudeville for the end of the century.” This is neither a variety show nor a French farce; it’s more a political treatise with a few laughs and one really good song. But we get more pap than politics in the theater these days; so, soapbox or bully pulpit — it’s good to have something to stand on and stand for.
©1999 Patté Productions Inc.