By Robert Subiaga
Some productions are born great (the source material is written so well even a stumbling attempt will come across as pretty good). Some productions are made great (the source material is pretty pedestrian but the performer really makes it shine).
Then there are productions where thinking about how "great" it is--how many stars, thumbs, kitties, whatever--is just wrongheaded.
That's any easy truth to lose as we age and get used to the arts. As an example, when I was a kid I was a huge Marvel Comics fan. In those days--the end of the Silver Age--nobody was trying to make comics "serious" (let alone super-dark) "literature" yet, nor target them to adults. But hordes of kids like me read the comics and our development was bootstrapped by how creators like Stan Lee wove in mature literary features here and there along the way, happily keeping it kids' lit.
Couch Aliens vs. the False World isn’t quite kids’ lit, it is a little too profane for that (though not too bad and kids are more stable than we often give them credit for.) But Duck Washington, already known in the local sci-fi and performance scenes for working with the fantastical, pulls off the same kind of synthesis my boyhood comics did.
The play centers around Gordon, a couch potato holed up at home like an agoraphobic while he mopes over his lost girlfriend, Tracey. While Gordon isn't looking, a multidimensional alien climbs right out from under one of the cushions of the couch and makes himself at home, just wanting to vegetate on human TV. The alien is supposed be studying humanity, and/or on the run from obligations to his family back on his homeworld, but claims that we're just so damned boring that TV is preferable.
The snarky alien and the slobby, melancholy Gordon have one thing in common: withdrawl. But they also can't help but grate just enough on each other that they each draw each other of their shells, as the alien takes Gordon through various dimensions of the "multiverse" and back again. They encounter even more alien creatures, including a piscean magician and a red-robed "Inquisitor" who's job is mysterious even to the alien, but has something to do with protecting the “secret” of the multiverse. As Gordon and the alien go back and forth, a couple of Gordon's human associates--a douchebaggy friend and a pizza girl--get drawn into the mix too.
With too many plays, being experimental or fantastical would stop with just weaving disparate elements together; showing a lack of understanding of how important good writing is for the stage. Here though all the loose ends are brought together to make the plot tight. There is a moral to the story or two that are timeless, and have been explored thousands of times in other stories--but of course never in this exact way.
That novelty really shines here, with creativity in characters and costumes worthy of Red Dwarf, Doctor Who, and so on. The production works well enough within the limitations of theatre in general and budget. The alien magician is in an unusually nice full-face rubber mask that is nevertheless a mask, and Jesse Corder as MAX the alien works a look that calls to mind a David Bowie glam rocker. The costuming is not super-professional, nor does it go for the opposite of pushing the campy on us. Supposedly this is a mistake; a "serious" attempt at production would try to go one way or the other. Then again, those childhood comics of mine valued representational art without worrying that the colors were a little washed out or simple. Or that the characters were dressed in Spandex. Or that everyone--even normal people--were just a little more muscular than normal. Sometimes a mixed tone just works.
Other creative touches also come across well, like a simmering "prologue" with music playing and Gordon glumly pacing in his bathrobe, playing darts, as the audience is being seated. And the way MAX crawls out of the sofa at the beginning is freaky and funny. When America's "Horse with No Name" suddenly pipes in to signal a flashback and the tone shifts from funny to nostalgic the transition is seamless.
Of course, some of the attempts at staging creatively didn't work as well for me. As Gordon and Max are holed up at home there are phone conversations to outside parties like Tracey. These are done with a live actor on a sidestage, but I found it distracting from the good claustrophobic quality of the main characters in Gordon's apartment. (On the other hand, use of the sidestage to "show" cheesy infomercials that are supposed to be playing on Gordon's TV work hilariously well.)
I also would have liked the story between MAX and Gordon to start in media res, with MAX already on the sofa and their original meeting being in the past. We don’t need Gordon’s shock at their meeting and him being won over to semi-credulity; his life is already surreal enough to buy it.
The most notable "flaw"--common to writers and poets everywhere--is that the ending runs too long trying to make “what it all means” clear. In this case too long by about two minutes. There's an exchange between Gordon and MAX, as they’re back on the sofa that captures it all, and the curtain should’ve gone down right there.
Here's a thought: Like those Silver Age Marvel Comics of my youth, sometimes good is good enough--not because we’re settling, but because art is never “perfect” and chilling about it can be the best way to sneak in the profound, here and there.
Check out Couch Aliens vs. the False World at the U of M Rarig Center Proscenium: Wednesday 8/11 10:00 p.m. Thursday 8/12 8:30 p.m. Saturday 8/14 5:30 p.m. Click HERE for more info and tickets.