By Charles Mee
Directed by Frederique Michel
Santa Monica, Calif.
Through Nov. 7, 2010
Charles Mee is one of the most imaginative playwrights of our time. Mee’s own description of “Paradise Park” gives the flavor of this non-linear work: “A guy goes into an amusement park and finds the park opens up into all of America. Featuring a ventriloquist and his dummy, a fruitcake toss event, a roller-coaster ride, an Esther Williams underwater ballet, a dance hall, a Polynesian dive shop, a square dance, and some star gazing.” The very talented Aresis Ensemble at City Garage (in the alley between the Third Street Promenade and Fourth; between Arizona and Santa Monica boulevards) steps up to the plate and delivers as fanciful fare as you are likely to see. While not exactly following Mee’s directions — who could? and the playwright probably would not mind — the nine-character production is astoundingly good for any company, let alone such a small company in such a tiny house.
All of which, sadly, leads me to my other observation. “Paradise Park” is not Charles Mee’s best work. This 80-minute play, notwithstanding terrific acting, imaginative staging, intricate and well-executed choreography (to my surprise there is no credit for choreography in the program), with effects such as fast-paced multiple projections, a myriad of clever costumes, actors playing instruments, and hints of commedia dell’ arte — despite all that, it was a very long 80 minutes. Without a discernable plotline, “Paradise Park” is reminiscent of the absurdist theater of the 1950s and ’60s. Characters have one or more long soliloquies expressing existential angst or ruminations on mortality (I think he would make a distinction between the two) and rarely connect with another character. The soliloquies are punctuated by fast, silly, but often delightful dialogue in a lush carnival setting.
If a plotline is lacking, the moral seems to be you cannot escape the weight of life. Benny (the apparently “normal” young man who wanders into the amusement park) says, it is “… frightening to be all alone with nothing to do but wait to get to be 80 or 90 and die.” And while they are waiting for the dismal end, these wacky carnival types rapidly wax on about the, for the most part, absurd desires they are still vainly pursuing. We in the audience wait impatiently to get to the end. It is best summed up by Jorge, an over-the-top fey man played wonderfully by Troy Dunn, “… when I read a book — which is a more sort of strained adventure — I get very involved in the words, but I don’t know what’s going on.”
Remembering other Mee works such as “Big Love” and “True Love,” I was hoping for more. How can I say it? The production is thoroughly entertaining; the play is not.