Saturday, May 29, 2009

Mercury Players Theatre's Poona the Fuckdog needs to be funnier

Jennifer A. Smith

Sometimes, the key to comedy is not trying too hard. That's a lesson I wish playwright Jeff Goode had thought about when penning Poona the Fuckdog and Other Plays for Children, now being staged by Mercury Players Theatre at its MercLab space on Fair Oaks Avenue.

After watching a sombrero-wearing penis sing a song about tequila, a repeated Abbot-and-Costello-esque bit about the confusion surrounding a space alien character named Cunt, and other assorted bits, I was ready to cry uncle. There's wackiness, and then there's throwing everything at the audience, hoping something will stick. A play like Poona doesn't need to clock in at over two hours, nor does it need to repeat gags as much as it does.

Poona starts with a simple setup that the playwright should have stuck to. We're introduced to title character Poona (Megan McGlone), a lonely pooch who doesn't have any friends. A Mr. Rogers-like narrator (Dean Nett), clad in a cardigan and tie and holding a storybook, begins to tell us her tale.

Soon, a Fairy God Phallus (Sean Langenecker) tells Poona about a game she can play. Poona winds up using sex as a way to get people to like her, including an odious prince who occasionally slugs her in the abdomen (eliciting laughs from some of the audience, who knows why).

While Poona wears its naughtiness on its sleeve, to the extent that it makes a point about anything, its targets are as broad and easy to hit as the proverbial barn: TV, crass commercialism, the way technology can depersonalize human interaction.

But I doubt Poona is trying to teach the audience a lesson; if anything, it's in direct opposition to that idea, poking fun at a didactic approach to theater. And that's perfectly OK; it just needs to be funnier. While the first act has its moments, the second half of the show drags.

One of the funnier moments is a scene with Casey Sean Grimm as a frustrated shrub. Mixing in amongst fake plants with no people inside them, Grimm's character laments how he, an MFA-trained actor, is given such a thankless role, and then tosses off a few lines of Shakespeare to show his chops. It's a funny bit that will speak to frustrated artists everywhere.

Jess Evans-Grimm is well-suited to perky, innocent characters with goofy voices, such as a rabbit and a little girl named Suzy Suzy, a young nerdling who learns to tap into her dark side (like most cast members, Evans-Grimm plays multiple roles).

Megan McGlone plays Poona with gusto, and Nett as the Mr. Rogers figure is appropriately soothing. Some of the technical elements are well done, like Mark Steward's costumes and Moritz Burnard's sound design.

Yet I fear this production, directed by Douglas Holtz, suffers from a common malady of local community theater (not just Poona): it looks like the cast is having blast -- and the cast's friends in the audience -- but the material just isn't funny enough for everyone else.

Comments (1)

From Sheilah Kring on 05/31/10 at 1:03 am
I'm kind of thankful for this review... why? Because I went into Poona with fairly low expectations. Initially I'd heard it was really funny, so was excited to go. Then I heard about this review. And was expecting it to be over the top, pointless vulgarity that just wasn't funny. As a result, I was very slow to warm up to the play after I got there. By the end of the first half I was feeling ambivalent. It still was not nearly as offensive or "bad" as I was expecting it to be. By the second half, I was in stitches. I absolutely loved the end of the show, and thought it was a wonderful way to tie up such a chaotic series of vaguely intertwined stories.

As for all of the concessions this reviewer made with regard to Poona, I greatly agree on them, as they were all noteworthy standout parts. I also loved some other aspects of the play. The lighting design was amazing for how old the theater is--they made full use of its capacity and I cannot imagine how long it took to coordinate the lighting. I do not see how anyone could watch this and not mention the FROG. He was such a fantastic addition to the ensemble, and every scene in which he appeared was only enhanced by him. I thought that Sean's "Penis", though at first a little over-the-top, became such a great entertaining part of the scenes, with his wonderfully voiced and versed songs and little interactive dances. It was impossible for even the most uptight people in the audience (and believe me there were some) not to be holding their sides with laughter by the end of the play.

As for the Abbott and Costello bits, and some of the other social commentary, I think I understand where some of this commentary is coming from. For the past 10 years we've been inundated with a lot of offensive messages (I think South Park, Comedy Central Roasts, etc., to name a few) so much as to be desensitized. I mean, even Arrested Development, a primetime show made jokes about the “C-Word”. I think some of us who are frequently exposed to some of this nowadays think of it as old news. On the other hand, I think fewer realize that this play is over 10 years old and at first was banned from a lot of places because it was too explicit. I went to see it this weekend, and thought, "WOW, I thought it was going to be WAY MORE offensive with the way people were going on and on about it." And maybe if I had seen it pre- “There's Something About Mary” or whatever it would have been more shocking… it's just that the context has changed somewhat. The points are still relevant... For instance in the alien scene (which the reviewer refers to as Abbott and Costello), the idea that what is offensive in one context is not necessarily in another. I think this is even MORE poignant now that we are dealing with a play that is 10 years old. Times change, meanings change, and now something that would've been cutting edge and outright shocking, is now just mildly fringe-ish, right? Therefore "not that funny" or “not a big deal” to some. But interestingly still “gratuitous and offensive” to others, yet in no way so outlandish as to be shocking at this point. But interestingly, whether it was shocking or not, all of those miss the message or point of the scene and the play altogether, I think. It does not seem that the message was, “I want to be shocking just for the sake of shocking you”. Each scene had a distinct point and message, which sadly got lost on people who overly focused on the penises, and words used, but really messages which would have just as easily gotten lost or not made any sense without them.

And as for the issue of how funny the play was or was not, aside from the fact that humor is extremely subjective, I think another layer with something like this -- it deals with some very offensive and sometimes still contentious topics. We aren't comfortable always laughing at how ridiculous and hypocritical we are as a society. For instance, I am not always comfortable laughing at Dave Chapelle’s jokes dealing with race. Is it because they aren’t funny? Not at all. I happen to think that he’s one of the funniest people in comedy. It is just that his comedy deals with some very historically dark and horrifying things that have happened. It would be disingenuous for me to just laugh outright as if everything about it is hilarious.

I think the reviewer is right that the cast is having a blast -- they are putting EVERYthing into each of their parts -- that was obvious. But I don't think the assessment that it was only the casts' friends in the audience were having fun and laughing. That's a pretty superficial view of it. When I was there it seemed to me, that people had to grow comfortable with the play -- How far are you going to go? Are you going to say things that I just cannot be okay with myself laughing at? Are you going to come back and bite me in the ass later for laughing at certain things?

I think what we had here was tension, ambivalence, that comes when an author and a cast takes a risk talking about topics that are unsafe, topics that not everyone is comfortable talking about and commenting on. Is the audience going to just non-chalantly laugh at the dark humor of murder, selling your soul, using words that have been used historically to oppress, people becoming disengaged and desensitized and mindless? Is it all just really slap-stick hilarious for us to guffaw mindlessly? No, it's not. But I think that's the whole point... it's not all just freakin' hilarious, is it? Some of it's funny... some of it's not... and sometimes we have to decide to laugh at it rather than give up and cry. Though in my opinion, the ability for a writer, and a cast to make me feel tense and uncomfortable about a topic is a sign of a good play. The world is complex, human emotions are complex, and if a play can convey something more than a world that is just black and white, and elicit emotions that are more than just black or white, happy or sad, funny or not funny, then I think that is something.

But I wouldn't interpret the tenuous laughter as "it's just their friends". I think that would be an oversimplification. Poona takes us for a long unsafe ride -- like hopping on the back of a motorcycle and going really fast for the first time -- at first we close our eyes and cringe, then we open one eye and check and see if everything is okay, then maybe we open both and take in a deep breath, and eventually if we can start to trust that our driver is going to keep driving safely and not kill us... we can loosen our grip, and smile and shout "WOOOHOO!" and laugh and enjoy the ride.