This mortal toil
Chico Cabaret’s latest is good, if you like that kind of thing
Chico, CA 95926
During the intermission of the opening-night performance of Chico Cabaret’s latest—Some Things You Need to Know Before the World Ends (A Final Evening With the Illuminati)—I overheard one of the theater’s volunteers explain that the show was kind of “weird.” It didn’t sound like a criticism, but rather like a cautionary explanation.
The weirdness in question takes place in a bombed-out-looking church where two of Chico’s most respected theater vets—Jerry Miller and Jeff Dickenson—are playing the crazy-eyed Rev. Eddie and his hobbling sidekick Brother Lawrence, respectively.
The church has seen better days. The pulpit is an old oil drum and the cross on the wall is fashioned from a couple of crooked pipes. The frenetic reverend it would seem, too, has seen better days. He’s rambling around, preaching, gesticulating, boasting and hallucinating, intertwining twisted religious doctrine with his frustrations over his failed life and the world he sees as responsible (including the omnipresent Illuminati). And dutifully following him around as he winds himself up is the crippled, hunchback assistant Brother Lawrence.
Breaking up this extended scene are various commercial breaks in the form of dreams, songs and other skits.
The setup looked promising. Renee Boyd’s set design strikes the perfect dilapidated junkyard tone, and having the audience be Rev. Eddie’s audience was a nice change of focus. And, it turned out that Miller and Dickenson, as expected, were energetically present for the audience and one another.
The problem for me was, despite the comment I overheard, this really wasn’t too “weird” of a play. It was pleasingly kooky in spots—some of the breakaway skits and songs were refreshing (a man applying for sainthood choosing from a list of violent means for his requisite martyr’s death was surprising and worth a couple chuckles)—but frankly, the play was kind of a chore to get through.
And while I laughed a little here and there, for me, it wasn’t really funny either. I enjoyed a couple of the most frenetic spots: when the good reverend administered a spirited bit of self-flagellation, I exploded along with the audience. But it was mostly composed of an old-fashioned style of camp and slapstick (of The Carol Burnett Show variety) that fell with a groan.
For a play with no real narrative—just two guys going back and forth about conspiracy theories and tongue-in-cheek pokes at religion—it needed some serious weirdness and unexpected comedy to keep me interested. And neither was there in a sustained way.
I am willing to admit that this was probably just not a play for me—most of the people in the roughly half-full theater laughed hard throughout. It is a popular play for regional theaters, one that’s regularly been performed at places like Chico Cabaret all over the country since its debut in 1981 (in fact, Miller and Dickenson previously starred together in a 1988 Other Theatre production of the work in the downtown space that now houses the Down Lo). And like a lot of the standard community-theater fare, it sticks to the core formula: slapstick kookiness, telegraphed punch lines, familiar pop-culture references, broad characters that actors can jump right into, plus a little bit of social commentary shoe-horned in for good measure.
If you’re involved in theater in any way, I’m guessing Some Things You Need to Know … is like an exercise of the craft, and for you it’s probably fun to see what the players and the Cabaret do with it. And for anyone who just wants to share a few laughs in a warm environment while watching a couple of very skilled actors ham it up, this will be a perfect night of theater.
I would enjoy watching Dickenson and Miller read the phone book at my dining room table, so on that count, their performances were well presented and engaging. But, for me, the choice of work was just more of the same.