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Keyword: ‘chris johnston’

Spawn of the Petrolsexuals: an Underground Comic by Christopher Johnston

August 13th, 2007 No comments

I went and saw Spawn of the Petrolsexuals: an underground comic again last night at Convergence Continuum‘s Liminis theatre. Seeing it a second time gave me the opportunity to step back and more thoughtfully consider the work given that the first time I watched it I was overcome by the often dense diatribes, the explosive multimedia components, and the shocking difference between its overall theatricality and style from that of most any other production I’ve ever seen.

To be a true reductionist about it, the play is about a group of homeless people who assume the identities of superheroes: Anger Boy, Holy Man, Free Girl, and another woman whose identity escapes me. Each character is defined by our modern environment: Anger Boy, subjected to a society dominated by machismo images and rampant sexuality, aggressiveness, etc.; Holy Man, defined by a life with people who were overly reliant on religious zeal (Christian) and the re-direction of sexuality into religious experience; Free Girl, who will not be bound physically or intellectually or socially; and the unnamed woman, who is defined by her once over-inculcation of domesticity in modern America and a continuous exposure to microwave ovens, etc. All speak the slogan, ‘Entropy reigns’ throughout. A constant reminder of the chaos and danger inherent in closed systems (intellectually) such as the United States seems to be (of which this play is a great criticism).

The play itself operates in a frame: that is, it begins and ends at the same place, so presumably the present action at the beginning and end contain all that is in-between (happening in the past); but the timeframe of this past is difficult to determine–a day, a week, etc. The play begins with Anger Boy and Holy Man naked, excepting a loin cloth, and brandishing crude weapons. They grunt and howl. The only distinctly elevated aspect of their behavior is Holy Man’s intercession on both their behalves for ‘grace.’ That is, howls Anger Boy, ‘all we ever wanted.’ The two then begin a hunt of sorts and the quarry soon appears, a man dressed in Middle Eastern garb; whom the other two catch, and beat, presumably to death. The parallel between the rage of America, the Christian influence on this rage, and the subjection of the Middle East is apparent. This first scene of action is then blacked out giving way to the first of several fascinating and well-developed multimedia pieces. The piece begins with a light-hearted example of 50’s/60’s propaganda (new convertible driving down the road with the whole family inside smiling and waving, a tractor and idyllic farm with a farmer waving, etc.) to a dominate and menacing industrial landscape (very like that in Cleveland at the turn of the last century): dominated by filthy smoke stacks gushing black soot and a hard dissonant metal guitar riff as an aerial shot zooms toward the precipice of our modern industrial chaos. During the whole, a homeless man passes under the screen (live in the theatre) and gathers up clothing that (we will find out later) belongs to the dead Free Girl. As the homeless man passes outs stage left, the lights come up and give way to the four super heroes. All stand down front on stage and lip-sync words that blare out through house speakers above as their virtual, heroic counterparts appear in Marvel Comic-style on-screen. ‘I am Anger Boy. The source of my superpowers comes from years of unrequited lust’ etc.

A big chunk of hard-to-digest exposition follows, once the superheroes are done talking, but it is immanently necessary to contextualize the audience. I’ll have to think hard about other ways of introducing this material, as I’m sure the playwright, Chris Johnston did. We’re given background that the group is trying to get to the distant Underdevelopments and out of the Center City, where they’re stuck. The main difficulty in getting out is a lack of fuel—and much comedy is drawn discussing possible sources: including shit and gas by-products of human consumption.

Various elements of the theatre space itself are employed to add a sense of involvement for the audience. Things fall from the sky (ceiling) the total space is used (pipes and bars that are behind the audience are held onto, swung upon), actors enter the seats, threaten the audience, solicit water from the audience, a garage door at the front of the theatre opens onto the street and is used as an entrance and exit as real traffic passes by, a trap door at the back of the stage is used for a very intense and highly interesting sequence when Anger Boy descends into the underground to visit Dark Angel–a sort of negative version of the hero visiting the wise person. It is a descent that the audience sees through the trap door, but as the door opens a camera shoots up from below and this image is on the main screen. It is as though one is seeing live theatre and participating in the creation of a 70s b-movie all at once and the effect is quite intense. Clearly, after Anger Boy descends, portions of the video were pre-recorded, for the screen is split and shows two angles–one from behind Dark Angel (of Anger Boy’s face) and one from behind Anger Boy (showing Dark Angel’s face). Down below, Anger Boy seeks the best method of gaining Free Girl’s unconditional love (he wants to possess her). Anger Boy is torn, Free Girl rejects his violence; but to Anger Boy, it is his super strength–what motivates him and the manner in which he protects Free Girl and how he leads the band of superheroes.

Other plot elements and characters are soon after introduced. A group of ruffians (whose names I forget but refer to we ‘normal’ citizens of the cities of America–we who have jobs, live in homes, etc.) comes in an attacks the superheroes, who aren’t so super after all. Anger Boy is beaten and made “bitch raped” (he performs humiliating acts of abasement while the three ruffians stand and laugh at him). And the Middle Eastern character who tells a highly poetic story of how green onions saved his life, cleaning rugs from his grandmother, and the terror of living in a world torn apart by violence: bombings, shootings, occupations, etc; and the arrogance of western powers (“we had electric lights thousands of years ago; we were the most glorious civilization in the world”) etc. I will call him the Arab for brevity’s sake and it sounds more superhero-ish anyway; the Arab is wooing Free Girl, too. Setting up a tension between the two strong male leads in the play. The act ends with this tension in full tilt between Anger Boy and the Arab, and the potential for the group of superheroes to make the journey out of the Center City and into the new land of the Underdevelopments.

The Second Act, of course, dissolves any silver lining that may have existed for the group. Messengers tell that the path out of the Center City has been cut; the heroes failed to find any viable fuel; and slowly the coherence and loyalty of the superhero band disintegrates.

Perhaps the best use of theatricality in the whole play occurs during the second act when the homeless man from earlier and Anger Boy bring in a broken tv set and put on a talk-show for the gathering of superheroes. The whole of the talk show format/discussion occurs on the main screen (filmed earlier) while the homeless man and Anger Boy mime what is happening on the screen through the broken tv set on stage–it is just the frame of the set with the glass/tube broken out. The homeless man pretends to be God and Anger Boy pretends to interview him. The conversation is irreverent and hilarious. God’s common phrase throughout the interview is “Oh, me.” (i.e ‘Oh, God’). I won’t attempt to cover the rambling philosophical and practical aspects of being God that God bemoans during this segment, but it is truly, beautifully comic. The plot thrust of this event is God convincing Free Girl to join (marry) Anger Boy. After it’s over, God is given a bottle of liquor for his trouble and the homeless man wanders off drinking.

To be continued…

Holiday Giving — Do Your Part

December 2nd, 2016 No comments

We’ve entered the giving season, so I thought I’d write about one organization, other than Playwrights Local that is, to which I’m giving my money.

I’m writing about a black box theater in the Tremont neighborhood of Cleveland. A theater company that changed my theatrical life, and radically altered my perception of how intimate, how powerful, how threatening, and how exhilarating theater can be.

petrol23I was introduced to convergence-continuum in 2007, when Mike Geither took me to see Chris Johnston’s play Spawn of the Petrolsexuals. The experience was fundamentally altering. Chris wrote a play about a dystopian, bombed-out landscape in which homeless superheroes fought brutal, oil-hungry Commandoids that I can only compare to the Enclave, for those of you familiar with Fallout. There was Angerboy, and Freegrrl, Ingen and Holyman. It reminds me, now looking back, of an early Eric Overmyer play, like Native Speech. The set the convergence created was a character in the play: fabricated steel structures, junk scattered, a broken television set, the massive east wall that was used as movie screen, a motorcycle, a garage door that really opened on Scranton Road, garbage cans, and the trap door near the west wall that leads to the cellar.

Lucy Bredeson-Smith, playing Darkangel—-a sort of black sorceress –- opens the trap door leading down to her underground lair and, as soon as she opens the door: the image of Darkangel looking down is on the movie screen east wall. I watch her descend away from me in the theater. I watch her descend toward me on the screen.

It was too meta. I was IN a B-movie and IN a real theater experience all at the same time. My head swelled to explode. The production was well-executed, but the feeling was raw. I went back two more times to see Chris’ play because I’d never seen anything like it. And this is what I hear whenever I take someone to convergence who has never been to convergence. The person who accompanies me is blown away, overwhelmed with a theater experience that they’ve didn’t know was possible: to be that close, to be that much a part of the experience, to feel so intensely.

Convergence is a true ensemble company. It’s made up of passionate, wholly committed actors, directors, light designers, sound designers, playwrights, video designers, costumers, set designers, painters, box office managers, and musicians—all volunteers: virtually impossible to believe in many ways. And they are all successful!! Critically acclaimed productions! Awards for acting, design, productions! And all working for the production itself, and not some small rapacious little thing like money or notoriety or any self-proclaimed “groundbreaking” aesthetic.

So, besides this… why give? convergence-continuum, the theater company, doesn’t own The Liminis, the theater space, in which they create their magic worlds! The Liminis space itself, that was so unique to the production I described above—-the garage door, the trap door, the movie screen wall—-all of the three-dimensional feast of experiences possible in a location—-is at risk.

What if theatre weren’t a mirror reflecting the familiar, but an opening into unknown territory? What if there were no fourth wall? What if, instead of going to the theatre to watch a play, you crossed the threshold into the world of the play to experience it? Theatre that expands the imagination and extends the conventional boundaries of language, structure, space, and performance that challenges the conventional notions of what theatre is. What sort of theatre would this be?


I’m giving to convergence right now. Please give to them as well.

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