Thursday, January 23, 2003

Nothing new: Portland cabbie’s world more disturbing than expected in Cult

Published in the Portland Phoenix

If you’ve ever wondered what makes Portland’s cabbies drive the way they do — especially the ones in the beat-up orange ABC Taxi cars — look no further than the Stone Pinhead Ensemble’s musical Cult, written and directed by ABC cabbie J.T. Nichols.

Even judged by its own standards, it is a disaster. The program clearly states, “if nobody walks out during the production, we have failed.” While a few people got up from their chairs during the January 17 show, everyone who departed returned.

They weren’t scared off by songs mocking government agencies, call-in shows joking about domestic violence, lyrical exaltations of barefoot wives, or the intellectual discourse of conspiracy-theorizing Internet Web sites.

There are two reasons for the play’s failure. First, Cult is the third in a trilogy started in 1993. The only people remaining in the audience for the final installment appeared to be personal friends of the actors, who would not be put off in their enthusiasm for the play’s disjointed and profane commentary on hicks, militia extremism, sadomasochism, and government anti-terrorism.

Some may even have been like-minded cab drivers, aware of no social convention (read: traffic lights or brake pedals) intended to curtail their individual freedom of spectation (read: driving).

Anybody else who might have left this show would have been already put off by the previous efforts. This is for the diehards, and feels more like a celebration of finishing a long project than the beginning of something really subversive. A taxi ride home from an Old Port bar is more likely to prompt a rethink of values and sensitivities than this confused play by this confused man.

Even the sympathetic audience was baffled. After one non-sequitur scene, clearly referring to the fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty” (complete with sleeping man and the word “beauty” spelled out on the rear ends of six dancers), the man next to me — who spent much of the show tapping his feet to the music and even singing along at times — laughed aloud, turned to me and said, “That’s got to be a take-off on something, isn’t it?”

The second reason for the failure is deeper: The entire show is a re-assembly of clichés that have circulated — even in the mainstream of culture — as jokes or anecdotes for years. His mind numbed by empty time and vapid driver-passenger dialogue, Nichols has lost track of what is truly offensive and revolutionary.

In a world in which an artist can get a government grant to throw feces at famous works of art, a few cheap pokes at women who “deserved” their husbands’ beatings seems weak and tired. The real potential to disturb the status quo lies in the possibility of a sharp-minded, lucid cab driver with a rational worldview. Instead, we find the same old thing we expected: A disgruntled cabbie railing against the maelstrom of confused conspiracy storming around him.

The singing, on the other hand, is stellar, and that weakens the show even more. The silky voice of Keith Shortall (playing Reverend Jerusalem Portnoy “Skidder” Ount), normally gracing the airwaves of Maine Public Radio, lends conventional credence to a show trying to be an outcast.

Most members of the cast, in fact, have lovely voices, whether trained or untrained, and are able to sing like hicks, even if they aren’t actually of that persuasion in real life. Hardly Headwood (Bob Way), in particular, is strong and entertaining in both song and speech.

The music is excellent as well, borrowing from big-show styles as diverse as Les Miserables and Oklahoma! and well suited for the oddness of the context, in which Ount opines, “if a man’s got something to say, he should sing it.” Again, the show raises questions about life in a Portland taxi.

Natalie Johnson, playing Pucker Headwood, is adorable and exactly as children are: realistic and stubborn in the face of adult disorientation and lunacy. Charlie Gould’s character Walter, a Lorax with a gift for words, is intelligent and witty, and therefore entirely out of place in this show.

But some of the characters are borrowed from elsewhere, most notably Patricia Kowal’s portrayal of Emily Riding Hood Headwood — a near-perfect imitation of Joan Cusack.

Even the lesbian terrorist group is unoriginal. Besides the storied crusades of “ACT Up!” in the real world, there is a terrorist group made up of another group of social minorities — men in wheelchairs — in David Foster Wallace’s eminently unreadable Infinite Jest.

Nichols’s basic ideas for the show have also clearly come from somewhere else — from other people, other performances, and crazy Web sites the rest of us studiously avoid. Nichols seeks out the lunatic element and portrays it the way it always has been shown: stupid, backwards, uncomprehending, and unworldly. Cult is a tired rehash of stereotypes generated not by Nichols but by something else. If only we knew what . . .

Here’s a clue: On our way home from the show, we actually saw an ABC taxi double-parked outside Video Expo, with its flashers on and no driver inside. Yes, the driver could have been in Joe’s Smoke Shop, it’s true.


Written and directed by J.T. Nichols. Composed by Charles Brown. With Keith Shortall, Mike Dow, Bob Colby, Bob Way, Patricia Kowal, and Natalie Johnson. Stone Pinhead Ensemble at the St. Lawrence Arts and Community Center, through Feb. 2. Call (207) 775-5568 x1.