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Theatre in Review: Everybody Gets Cake! (Parallel Exit/59E59)

Danny Gardner, Joel Jeske, Brent McBeth. Photo: Jim R Moore/Vaudevisuals

How to explain the torrent of gags, non sequiturs, and sheer madness otherwise known as Everybody Gets Cake!? Well, here goes: On a white set covered with enormous black arrows and loaded with doors of all sizes, a trio of young men comes fast and furiously, changing costumes and personas without the slightest care for plot, character, or anything else that might make a lick of sense. We are introduced to Steve, the theatre cow, who helps out with the standard speech about the location of the fire exits. "Steve used to be a photo op in Times Square," his companion tells us, adding, in triumph, "Look at him now!" Every so often, someone picks up a ringing phone, an adjoining door opens, and a pair of black-gloved hands reaches out in sinister intent. A three-man chase sequence features a couple of trees handed from man to man, representing the passing landscape. Later, all three put frames around their heads, creating a fugue of facial tics set to music. In "The Handheld Symphony," a pair of "musicians" taps out a complicated beat with their smartphones, throwing in message alerts and ringtones for good measure.

There are bits right out of silent film, accompanied by flicker-light effects that mimic the quality of vintage celluloid. There is a visit to the Novocaine Abusers Hot Line; an appearance by Bob, the Wandering Arm Man; an unhappy encounter between Mother Theresa and a bank teller; and a drag French cabaret singer whose lip-synced rendition of "La Vie en Rose" is nearly overwhelmed by a cascade of bubbles. In a lunatic spoof of the current craze for trigger warnings, we are told that disturbing images will be signaled by a tone; we are then told that adorable images will be signaled by....the same tone. This is illustrated by tableaux featuring a serial killer, a cute kitten, and a serial killer holding a cute kitten.

This is my first experience with the troupe known as Parallel Exit, twice nominated for Drama Desk Awards for previous entertainments. I suppose you'd call them New Vaudevillians but, to my eyes, they stem from a tradition that includes the '60s-era TV series Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In (the all-gag format with cast members forever popping out doors), Ernie Kovacs (who pioneered inexplicable comic setups long before the rise of Monty Python), and Olsen and Johnson (who specialized in running gags that only got bigger with repetition). At times, one feels, acts of homage are being offered. Surely Hans, the Sneaky Nazi is a tribute to Arte Johnson's sinister German soldier on Laugh-in. And "The Handheld Symphony" is oddly reminiscent of that Kovacs classic The Nairobi Trio.

No matter how weird or wild, everything that happens in Everybody Gets Cake! is executed with care and precision. Two of the creator/performers, Joel Jeske and Brent McBeth, have worked as clowns with the Ringling Brothers and Big Apple Circuses. The third, Danny Gardner, has extensive experience in musical theatre. These are not disciplines where sloppiness is allowed. (By the time you read this, Gardner will have been replaced by Ryan Kasprzak, another Parallel Exit regular with a background in musicals.) The speed and skill with which all three change costumes and conceits is breathtaking.

There is a big caveat hanging over this entertainment, however: Woe betide the viewer who doesn't have a taste for a certain kind of fey, almost entirely self-referential, humor. Some bits are funny, some are almost funny, and some fall into the category of What Were They Thinking. (A scene in which one of the guys stuffs his sweaters with balloons, to no particular effect, is a major head-scratcher.) Even if you're on this troupe's wavelength, there may be times when you find that Everybody Gets Cake! is coasting on the charm of its stars. I was beguiled, but I didn't laugh as often as I might have. And, at 65 minutes, it doesn't end a moment too soon.

Still, you have to admire the buoyancy and style of Mark Lonergan's production. Maruti Evans' cunning set is filled with surprises, including a kabuki drop that announces the show's title; his lighting proves skilled at picking up the tone of each new bit. Oana Botez's nifty costumes, which, like the set, make use of a black, white, and red palette, are both attractive and amusing. Mike Dobson's sound design is especially notable in the "The Handheld Symphony." Ben Model, who provides original music along with bits of Erik Satie's "Gymnopédie No.1," is an indispensable fourth member of the troupe.

There is plenty of talent on display here, even if it doesn't quite satisfy. I don't think I'm going to miss Parallel Exit again; this troupe has something, even if I can't quite tell what it is. By the way, the title is a statement of fact: I, along with everyone else in the audience, got cake; I just didn't get all the jokes--David Barbour.

(26 January 2015)

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