KC Fringe Festival
"Cultural Confrontation", written by Jack Phillips, Directed by Victor Hentzen, with musical direction by Sarah LaBarr, with a cast of amazingly talented folks. I saw it recently at the Union Station City Stage Theater, and is a valiant effort, exactly the sort of experimental show that the Fringe Festival embraces. Unfortunately, it's just not very good.
Here's the premise: Cultural Confrontation is a satirical game show. Pitting "us", the rich and entitled, against "them", the progressive and poor. Each opposing side has its character archetypes. For instance there is the monopoly guy, the philosophical African nihilist, the socialite that's famous for being famous, the vegan activist, a cannibalistic health insurance executive, a French person, and a gender-confused Vietnamese oil baron. Perhaps archetypes isn't the correct term, but you get the general idea. It's a battle between the haves and have-nots, and it's not entirely clear who the good guys are. What's clear, is that it's also a musical, showcasing Phillip's song writing.
At times, the show is clever and delivers some genuine laughs, but it's a technically complex show with a large cast, requiring a lot of wireless microphones. I don't know if Union Station is ill-equipped to deal with wireless systems or what, but every single microphone on that stage was either cutting in and out or being rustled against something noisy. It was incredibly distracting. Between the sound issues and every other technical failure, I was never able to really immerse myself in the show.
Immersion is one issue though. Enjoyment is another. It looked like it was directed by a first-timer, but it wasn't. Hentzen has been in this community for a long time and has developed a lot of professional respect from his peers. However, in this instance, for lack of a more kind way of saying it, he failed. I don't know if he didn't like the material, or the cast, or maybe he just didn't know what to do with such a convoluted script. I don't know. It doesn't really matter though. He was given an amazing group of people, and was unable to inspire them to at least have some fun. I could see it in their eyes. They weren't having fun. Not just that though, they were miserable. So at some point early on, so was I.
Phillips' script was essentially a ninety minute box, in which he put forty five minutes of actual show. It was MUCH too long. There were plot points and story arcs that didn't matter, and I didn't care about. There was a moment when I realized that it stopped being a social/political satire and became a piece of murder mystery dinner theater, only without the dinner and murder. The script should have been work-shopped before seeing this kind of light of day. When you have a script that isn't ready and the writer won't listen or seek advice, which is the only thing I can think of that would have enabled this script to get produced, then this is what you end up with. I would suggest a serious effort to tighten up the dialogue and put the emphasis on the songs, which were by far the most watchable parts of the show. I really liked the songs a lot. Phillips is an extremely talented songwriter. As clever as they come.
For instance, there's a wonderfully funny song about how life would be great if there weren't a bunch of assholes ruining things. To me, it raised a good question. Who's the asshole that ruined this show?
I think the point of this show is, we're ALL assholes. Which means were in it together whether or not you have insurance, money, or whatever. It's a good point, and one I didn't expect Phillips to make. It's how I feel about the world too. The "us" and "them" attitudes that we all seem to embrace are pointless because we all suck to some degree or another, which is a comfort to me.