CATF's 'Eelwax Jesus' is musical of the absurd

July 13, 2010|By GEORGE OLIVER / Special to The Herald-Mail
  • Helen-Jean Arthur as Mrs. Worthington talks to her stuffed pet dog, Sarah Palin in Contemporary American Theater Festival's "
Photo by LaBrell Guy,

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - Theater of the Absurd has made its comeback thanks to the Contemporary American Theater Festival this year.

If you long for the curious likes of Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot," or Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead," you're in for a treat. But even if you've never seen an absurdist play, you'll get an eye-popping evening with CATF's world premiere offering of "The Eelwax Jesus 3-D Pop Music Show."

It's an ambitious, splashy, surreal opening to the 20th season of the Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

Oh, and it's a musical, too - of the sort that you might get if you cross Lewis Carroll with The Grateful Dead. The result is an evening quite unlike anything that you'll recognize as American musical theater.

Aside from the general structure of the play -- a rock concert within a TV show within a play - describing Eelwax Jesus is a bit like trying to make sense of a Magritte painting of a man with an apple blocking his face. Absurd, but you can't stop looking.


We watch three residents in a sitting room of an apartment house sometime in the apocalyptic 21st century watching a retro TV show live on stage. Among the residents is Mrs. Worthington, with a pet stuffed dog named Sarah Palin.

All the while, we are the pretend studio audience of the TV show featuring the Eelwax Jesus band. They play songs of alienation, paranoia and unrequited love while two screens in the background flash videos of geometry lessons, webcam mugshots, empty '50s motels, and animal locomotion.

It all sort of makes sense while you're watching it, but evaporates if you try to think about it. It's fabulous, bizarre, existential fun.

Kurt Zischke plays the TV announcer Mr. Shine so smarmily, you like and dislike him at the same time. The odd group of building residents, played by Clare Schmidt, Jonathan Raviv, and Helen Jean Arthur are smart, twisted and funny, as they create the uneasy dialogue in the commercial breaks between musical numbers.

During the commercial breaks of the show within a show, the residents wax philosophical about consumerism, cloning, the controlled futuristic world outside their building, and whatever else pops up in the environment. The announcer comes out to give away an actual toaster to an audience member. At various intervals, a vagrant begs coins for his coin-operated TV, a man sprays for insects, a dance contest couple comes in to do a tango, and a man in a gas masks gives out MoonPies. And that's just half the mad fun.

If none of this makes sense, it's OK, because the music oddly ties it all together. It's Broadway rock in a style somewhere between the '60s to the '80s, at turns Elvis Costello with hints of Hendrix. Lee Sellars wrote the terrific music to the playwright and director Max Baker's angst-ridden lyrics, and plays guitar with the Eelwax Jesus bandmembers' lead guitarist Michael Pemberton, bass player Joe Rosenfeld and drummer Danny Tait.

They're accompanied occasionally by the ironing-obsessed Margo White, whose task of stoically unwrinkling piles of napkins stage right for 90 minutes in spiked heels has to be one of the more grueling theater jobs this year.

Don't be surprised if you begin to feel like you've gotten too close to the hookah-smoking caterpillar from Disney's "Alice in Wonderland."

When the girl asks of a song "What does it mean?", you know she's referring to the play she's stuck in and the play we're watching. True to the Theater of the Absurb genre, Baker's cryptic and clever script doesn't provide an answer to life's mysteries except to say just marvel at the scenery and enjoy the weird ride.

In the end, the cast gets everyone singing the chorus of the last song, "I want everything." It's a final irony in a show that (among other things) casts dispersion on the American way of consumerism, and we take the bait with its catchy tune and join right in.

If you want an eyeful and earful, go see "The Eelwax Jesus 3-D Pop Music Show." You might want to sit toward the back of the house so you can easily take in all of the happenings on stage. Absurdity sometimes looks clearer from a distance.

"The Eelwax Jesus 3D Pop Music Show" is performed at the Frank Center on the campus of Shepherd University in Shepherdstown through Sunday, Aug. 1.

For the rest of the CATF schedule and ticket prices go to .

George Oliver is a freelance writer, editor and literary agent living in Martinsburg, W.Va. He can be reached at .

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