KPBS AIRDATE: June 14, 2002
Marshall McLuhan would probably be pleased. In the Sledgehammer production of Don DeLillo’s “Valparaiso,” the medium is definitely the message. And the message is media assault. In fact, in the first act, the blitzkrieg is so loud, oppressive and relentless, it becomes, to borrow from DeLillo’s most acclaimed novel, “White Noise.”
True to DeLillo form, the play is more a social statement than a story, though there is an arc of sorts. Covering for a colleague with a rare, unidentifiable disease, Michael Majeski takes a plane trip to Valparaiso, Indiana, gets diverted somehow to Valparaiso, Florida, and winds up in Valparaiso, Chile. The media blitz that ensues consumes and ultimately destroys his marriage and his soul. For the audience, as for Michael, it’s a bumpy ride. Inventive director Matthew Wilder is up to his old UCSD antics in Act I; it feels like the original, testosterone-driven Sledge days are back — what with gratuitous, salacious female nudity onscreen and topless women onstage, shocking visuals and a deafening soundscape. But things quiet down in the second act and become much more watchable and actually enjoyable… if that isn’t an insult to the creators. Actors aren’t screaming any more, for one thing. And the sound design settles down, while the six TV monitors continue to bombard us with the familiar everyday images that routinely blur fact and fiction, news and nonsense, feeling and fluff, erasing any distinction between the public and the private in our lives.
Meanwhile, we the onlookers get sucked into becoming the audience for a daytime tell-all TV show that exposes all the noxious excesses of predatory journalism and our seemingly insatiable, voyeuristic need to know everything, anything, no matter how true or trivial, no matter what the cost. Poor Michael gets more than his 15 minutes of fame, and we get a bellyfull of DeLillo’s sermonizing and Wilder’s histrionics. And yet, like the TV shows the play exposes and parodies, the production (at least the 2nd act) is in its own warped way, compelling and impossible to resist. Some of the performances are riveting, especially Matt Kautz as Michael, Lisel Gorell as his slightly wacko wife, and Walter Murray as the sycophantic sidekick to Shonda Dawson’s gorgeously hateful host. Then there’s the bruised and blue-nippled chorus of zomboid, S&M stewardesses, who spew endless airport security warnings. The mechanized, automaton nature of our collective inhumanity is repeatedly delivered in often brilliantly evocative language. DeLillo may be heavy-handed, but he’s unquestionably silver-tongued.]
This may be just the jolt you need to jar you out of your sun-season somnolence. … something to be appalled by and attracted to at the same time. Consider it a chilling summer shake.
©2002 Patté Productions Inc