KPBS AIRDATE: May 5, 1993
(SPACE MUSIC under….)
This is a KPBS news bulletin. Aliens have landed in downtown San Diego. In two different locations. One group has settled into the Fritz Theatre, and a very strange solo visitor is now appearing at the Hahn Cosmopolitan Theatre. Holy space-case!
They’ve studied our Earthling ways. They’ve decided on their course of action. Oddly enough, they’re all taken with Bob’s Big Boy, which is mentioned in both plays. Go figure. But these extraterrestrials need us.
In “The Unseen Hand,” they’ve come for some old gunslingers to bring back for slugging it out with The High Commission of NogoLand. In “Tales of the Lost Formicans,” they’ve put us under the microscope and taken us as their toys and playthings.
Down at the Fritz Theatre, things are strange indeed, and that’s the way the Fritz company likes it. Constance Congdon’s “Tales of the Lost Formicans” takes place in suburban Colorado, but it’s Anywhere USA. Grandmas and their daughters have troubled relationships. Mothers and teenage sons speak different languages. Fathers run off with eighteen year olds. Dumped and divorced, women have flings of their own. Grandfathers get Alzheimer’s disease. Neighbors get abducted by aliens. And Frank Sinatra provides background Musak.
We have met the Formicans, and they are Us. The aliens named us that because of our observed kitchen table preferences. The robotic, squeaking practical jokers are giving a scientific lecture on these Formicans, all the while driving their already deteriorating lives to even greater distraction. The Earth seems to be in plenty bad shape, as playwright Congdon sees it. We don’t need any outside help, thank you.
There are many funny and fantastical moments in this piece, as directed by Tavis Ross. But there’s far too much screaming on this planet. I started getting a headache from all the yelling. More modulation needed. I began to prefer the soothing squeaks and squeals of the aliens.
The cast is quite competent, with Julian West as the degenerating Grandpa being the most believable, and Matthew Reidy winning the prize for most weird, though his Lincoln-Kennedy treatises were pretty old.
The Kennedy assassination shows up in “The Unseen Hand,” too. But Sam Shepard wrote it and set it in the late sixties, and everyone was obsessed then.
And so we meet Willie, the Wild One from outa this world who beams himself down to Asuza, California which, thanks to the Blackfriars Theatre company, has been transplanted into the Hahn Cosmopolitan Theatre. Willie is a gyrating lab experiment, a humanoid derived from a baboon who moves like a hyperkinetic Scarecrow-Tinman combo from Oz. He has the brand of a hand on his face; the title and tatoo refer to “The Unseen hand,” a powerful mind-control device that monitors thought. Willie’s race is being destroyed back in Nogoland, and he needs help from Earth. It’s gotten to be pretty much of a No-Go on earth, too, but that’s another story. Shepard, as always, manages a few lectures on where we are and what we’re up to, but at least he does it in interesting language.
So Willie’s come to find Blue Morphan, a 120 year-old living in the shell of a ’53 Chevy, which makes for a glorious set designed by John Blunt. Willie brings back Blue’s two dead gunslinger brothers, and they’re formulating a plan when along comes an obnoxious teenage boy, almost as obnoxious as the one in “Tales of the Lost Formicans”…. I think I had too many alien visitations for one weekend.
Anyway, director Ralph Elias has had great fun with this piece, though, like “Formican” director Tavis Ross, he occasionally gets sucked from antic madness to sheer silliness. Must be the control of the unseen hand… Elias’ cast is a delight, with Dan Halleck a thoroughly likable Blue and Linda Libby an agile, simian, thoroughly unearthly Willie.
Both plays work most of the time and give the audience a good time, while not letting them drift too far from the underlying awareness of deep problems here on planet Earth. We Formicans may be lost, but thank goodness Blackfriars Theatre is found again. If any group should believe in multiple reincarnations, it’s them. After being summarily evicted from their self-constructed space, the plucky, spunky little company has risen again from the ashes, Phoenix-like, to show up on the Gaslamp’s often-dark stage. It’s a match made in heaven that provides everyone — two theater companies and grateful audience members — with plenty of earthly delights.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1993 Patté Productions Inc.