BWW Review: Pony World's Collaborative AMERICAN ARCHIPELAGO is Bizarre, and Works as a Comedy
Pony World's world premiere "American Archipelago" is a collaborative examination of American culture and values. Written by Holly Arsenault, Kelleen C. Blanchard, Tré Calhoun, Vincent Delaney, BrenDan Healy, Maggie Lee, Sara Porkalob, and Seayoung Yim, "American Archipelago" feels more like an incubator than a melting pot. Eight folks from different communities live side-by-side in a semi-symbolic neighborhood called "The United States of America." While this campy fever-dream succeeds as a black comedy, what's missing from this conceptual piece is a fresh concept.
Directed by Bobbin Ramsey, the show has a smidge of a narrative thread: eight neighbors--Bev, Luis, Leonard, Julia, Carl, Stuart, Anya, Ellen, and Bev--who represent different American cities put on smiles and have small talk with one another at their block party. In this city, "New York" lives a few doors down from "San Francisco," and, no surprise, this happily little block party quickly sours.
I believe surrealism works best when every aspect of the production has a basis of realism, with few or subtle caveats. "American Archipelago" has a cluster of in-your-face caveats. The characters are constantly eating or playing a game. The characters, mid-scene, break out choreographed dances (some to the tune of slowed-down pop songs), and the relationships between them end just as quickly as they were formed. Day and night exist but time does not seem to. Some characters like to have tomatoes thrown at them, others like to stand ankle-deep in a baby pool wearing children's scuba gear. There are so many surreal characteristics in the show, none seem especially strange, and it just turns into senseless noise. BUT, senseless noise is okay when it's funny.
There are a number of relationships that blossom over the course of the production, but no pair feels stable. That very lack of stability produces a lot of funny material. For example, dorky and anxious Leonard (Bob Williams giving the role some much-needed congeniality) isn't much of a risk taker, so when his depressed, unconventional boyfriend Luis (played tenderly by Carter Rodriquez) tells him he wants to be pinned against a wall and kissed passionately, Leonard checks out the wall and nearby furniture to make sure nothing would break. Odd-duck Ellen (played by Rebecca Goldberg with a sympathetic edge) has only showed unconditional, maternal love to her chickens, so when she takes lonely Anya (played by Kenna Kettrick, a natural at bring a flippant young adult) under her wing, she loves her the only way she knows how. Bizarre and uncomfortable situations do not make everyone laugh, but if you do find those situations funny, you will enjoy "American Archipelago" as a dark, surreal comedy. If you do not find bizarre and uncomfortable situations funny, and you're looking for thought-provoking concepts beneath the strange dialogue and clutter of American stuff, "American Archipelago" will frustrate more than entertain.
When the show really goes for it and embraces how nuts the characters are, that's where the show does something new. Julia (played manically by Corinne Magin) talks about opening a restaurant of, "elevated" quality; specifically, a, "Tex-Mex middle eastern fusion" restaurant. Her "reinventions" of dishes are nothing like the original: her reinvention of baba ganoush is just mashed potatoes. That's funny! This is beyond delusion, it's insanity, and successfully satirizes modern American culture. There are a number of moments like this in the show, and I wish there were more. When it leans into being a satire, rather than taking itself too seriously, that's where the magic happens.
This is a show of feelings, and is lighter on thoughts. Leonard's struggles with impulsive eating are sad. Ellen's treatment of Anya is unnerving. Luis' unusual desire to be physically and emotionally abused is depressing. But nothing about the way the characters talk to one another, or behave towards one another feels realistic. This is a show that feels like it was supposed to be more serious than funny. With that, if the strangeness of the language is intentional, the concept behind it should either be more blatant, or more thought provoking. Gluttony, bigotry, colonization, and materialism are not thematically groundbreaking in a show about what's wrong with America, and these notions of American culture have been beat to death by modern media. This show gives an echochamber a megaphone. Bev's desire to take ownership over her orgasms was cool and new (played by Shermona Mitchell and showcases the standout performance of the show), but beyond a dark comedy, "American Archipelago", conceptually, is pretty surface-level.
Whether you find enjoyment in absurd, dark comedy will be the determinant factor for whether you find the show enjoyable. It was a fun and weird world to observe, but the flow of the show was jaunty, and the point of the show was not clear. I give "American Archipelago" a decently entertained "B". Eight different playwrights may have been too many for this one show.
"American Archipelago" performs at 12th Avenue Arts through August 12th, 2017. For tickets and information, visit them online at www.ponyworld.org.