Theater review: Action Movie: The Play at The Magnetic Theatre
Action Movie: The Play, the raucous new comedy from The Magnetic Theatre, playing through March 31, is exactly what the title promises. Using a maelstrom of props, puppets, and goofy characters, Action Movie overwhelms the audience with loud noises, lots of props, and a fourth wall-busting cavalcade of scene changes, fight choreography, and dance numbers.
The results of this prodigious theatrical effort are mixed. But the impressive scope of the ambition and the extent of the commitment to the parody are never in doubt. Even if this show doesn’t quite work, it’s certainly not from lack of trying.
It should be stated from the get-go that director Andrew Gall conquers a staggering number of theatrical challenges with Action Movie: The Play. The script calls for, in no particular order: several scenes of people hanging off skyscrapers, a giant alligator that eats a cast member, an underwater sequence, a character who is a cyborg, and a few exploding grenades.
A plurality of the show, in fact, consists of great fight choreography by Jered Shults and Andrew Gall. Every punch, kick, and thumb-ectomy are fun and watchable.
In a fast-moving two hours (with one 15-minute intermission) there are dozens of different characters, settings, and costume changes. Even the 10-person cast seems positively decadent in the modern world of regional theater, where most companies opt for five-person shows, at maximum. Just imagining the props list and the cue-to-cue rehearsals makes my head ache. Great credit should be given to director Gall and stage manager Jessica Johnson for corralling this whole effusive effort.
Along the same lines, the production design of Action Movie is an ADHD tidal wave of giant puppets, ridiculous props, and dramatic lighting (by lighting designer Abby Auman). Prop and puppet designers Katie Jones, Jim Julien, and Johnson provide pecking vultures and ravenous alligators, and, in what is probably the funniest moment of the show, a puppet arm that is vigorously abused by one of our action heroes.
Action Move: The Play burns brightest when it leans into the action movie satire. A ridiculous “opening credit sequence” and other cinematic features by sound and projection designer Rodney Smith are hilariously genre-blending.
The main problem with Action Movie is with the script itself, by Joe Foust and Richard Ragsdale. Not to put too fine a point on it, but most of the jokes simply aren’t funny. Granted, humor is subjective, and I’m quite sure there is an audience somewhere for this kind of funny. But it’s not me, and from what I could judge from the amount of laughter in the packed house in which I sat, it wasn’t really for them, either.
The gags seem to exist on a tonal spectrum with “children’s theater” on one end and Family Guy on the other. The ones in the middle — over the top and a bit raunchy — usually work. But many of them are so corny they fall flat, and a good number are so aggressively “adult” they feel a little like an assault. Some are just offensive statements in search of a joke. (A clownish parody of an injection drug overdose was particularly repulsive.)
That’s not to say there aren’t any funny moments in the show. There are. But there is also no depth of character, no clever plot twists, nothing romantic or heartwarming. And that’s fine — those elements would make it a totally different play. But a show that is modeled after an inch-deep laugh fest like Tropic Thunder needs to be consistently funny, because it’s the only reason such a show exists. The jokes are everything in a play like Action Movie, and so a 30-40% success rate poses a significant problem.
Another issue with the script is that it’s confusing. Sure, no one’s expecting the plot of Action Movie: The Play to be the best story in the history of the theater. The point is the humor, the broad characters, the spectacle. But the narrative is in such disarray that it becomes distracting.
The entire first act is devoted to “getting the team together.” It takes so long because there are numerous detours into absurd subplots like a car chase to capture Sanchez the drug dealer (oh, you think that’s offensive? Wait for the un-funny Anne Frank non sequitur), and a virus outbreak that presumably causes disco dancing. The dance sequences by Samantha LeBrocq are fun and engaging — they’re just a bit random.
These meandering scenes are usually quite watchable, but they do have a tendency to overload the theatergoing mind a bit. In the first act, in particular, we are asked to absorb and remember countless characters and minor story arcs that are promptly dismissed as soon as the gag is over. Sometimes the gag is really funny and we can forgive them. More often, it’s not funny enough to justify 10 minutes of stage time that could have been used to let us know the characters or to enrich the story.
Whatever flaws exist in the script, the cast does an excellent job of carrying out their roles as written. On the whole, they are phenomenally committed to the hammy vibe that Action Movie requires.
Mike Yow is tremendously engaging as Dr. Xylene, the wheelchair-bound mastermind, and as Kreeger, the supervillain. Yow’s Shakespearean delivery is exactly what the ironically self-serious dialogue calls for. LeBrocq is the closest thing to a grounding presence with her cool-headedly effective Cyborg Girl, and she also designed the costumes, which are pleasantly gaudy.
Zoey Laird is the gem of the show as happily slovenly sex-crazed computer whiz Alec Smarty. Christopher Linn is very funny and surprisingly warm as Kung Fu Guy, making the character decidedly less offensive than it could have been.
Daniel Moore is very endearing as the simply named Police Officer. Parks and Recreation aficionados will see a lot of Chris Pratt’s “Burt Macklin, FBI Agent” in Police Officer. Finally, as the main action hero, Stone Hardgod, Shults is convincing enough, although he is often overshadowed by his more colorful teammates.
Should you go see Action Movie: The Play? Well, that really depends on what type of theater-going experience you are looking for. If you like loud noises, clownish characters, and somewhat adolescent humor, it’s definitely in your ballpark. If, in addition, you have a high tolerance for offensive jokes, then yes, buy your tickets immediately. Even if you’re simply curious to see some cracking good spectacle and have a few laughs — onward.
Action Movie: The Play has a lot going for it, and I will always prefer a play that takes big risks and falls short to a conventional show that tries nothing new and leaves me feeling blank. For this, Action Movie: The Play deserves a big round of applause — just not a standing ovation, this time.
Action Movie: The Play runs Friday-Sunday through March 31 at the Magnetic Theatre in Asheville. For details and tickets, visit themagnetictheatre.org.
(Photos: Magnetic Theatre)