Swimming with the Fishes
Methods to Madness at the Vortex Theatre
By Steven Robert Allen
The Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin once wrote that "the passion for destruction is also a creative passion." This sentiment fuels much of the murderous, hallucinogenic action in the Vortex Theatre's production of Methods to Madness, a darkly funny play by Joel Murray about the art and thrill of acting.
Maxine Strindberg (Jessica Marie Osbourne) shares an apartment in Hollywood with Mercy Owen Cash (John Byrom). Together the pair represents the yin and yang of the acting world.
Armed with a wholly fabricated résumé, Maxine dreams of conquering traditional theater. She views acting as a high art and is willing to do anything—and I do mean anything—to achieve her dreams on stage. With this goal in mind, she seeks out a deranged homeless guy named Stark Stark (Eric Werner) who hallucinates fish and has written an entire play in his own blood. Stark Stark becomes Maxine's unlikely mentor.
Mercy, on the other hand, doesn't give a damn about art. He's set his sights on the small screen, aiming to become a big TV star to make his parents proud and his friends jealous. He's willing to do anything—and I do mean anything—to get his face on the tube. With this goal in mind, he enters into the service of Tony Bone (Bruce Holbrook), an emotionally disturbed, transgendered director who gives Mercy a bit part in his truly innovative production of Death of a Salesman. Bone promises that the part will serve as a springboard for Mercy to get his own TV show.
The gig doesn't quite work out the way Mercy had planned. While prancing around in furry underwear and pantyhose, Bone insists that his actors ingest large quantities of psychoactive drugs while reciting their lines in foreign languages. He eventually convinces Mercy to forget about TV and make a career for himself in the porn industry.
Maxine doesn't fare any better with her tutor. Stark Stark's primary acting instruction is that she repeat "I am nothing, I am nothing" over and over again. He also claims that he acquired his own acting brilliance while on vacation in Sweden when he captured a mackerel with the head of the great Swedish playwright August Strindberg and bit the fish's face off.
I'm still trying to figure out why every character wears the same pink and yellow dress at the end of the play, but that cryptic symbolism aside, I have to say that the cast is generally wonderful, and director Gabrielle Johansen does a swell job of ringleading this circus. Osbourne and Byrom generate a cutesy, asexual chemistry throughout, and I thought Holbrook's gruff style of nonacting was surprisingly effective in the role of Bone. He really nailed several of the best jokes of the night. Finally, David Green and Jocelyn Tucker turn in a couple of fine performances as a pair of gibbering mackerels.
That said, Methods to Madness doesn't quite gel as a coherent play. The self-reflective navel gazing story, such as it is, mainly seems to serve as a somewhat flimsy foundation for a string of blistering and somewhat bizarre one-liners about actors and acting. Even so, lots of the jokes are very funny, and, hey, if a play can make you laugh—loud and often—then it's a winner in my book.
With its promises of cannons, bungee cords, hermaphrodites and graphic sex, I think I might have preferred to see Tony Bone's version of Death of a Salesman. Yet Methods to Madness has lots of quality humor to recommend itself, especially if your sense of humor tends, as mine does, toward the peculiar.
Bottom line: If you're looking for profundity and a good story, look elsewhere. If you're looking for plenty of cheap but genuinely hilarious jokes at the expense of the acting world, you've come to exactly the right place.
Methods to Madness, a play by Joel Murray, directed by Gabrielle Johansen, runs through April 4 at the Vortex Theatre. Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. $10 general, $8 students/seniors. Sundays at 6 p.m. $8. 247-8600.
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