Friday, June 6, 2014

“Backyard” Isn’t For Pussies at Atwater Village Theater by M.R. Hunter

Let me open with a disclaimer: this show has copious amounts of violent and graphic situations, sex and comedy. In short, it's a real winner for those who have a high tolerance for gore. For sensitive audiences who can't stand the sight of blood, self-inflicted pain, or oral copulation, I recommend you see something else. "Backyard" isn't for pussies. That being said upfront, I will now tender my review to everyone who, like me, enjoys a theatrical brawl, KO style.

Mickey Birnbaum's examination of backyard wrestling has less to do with the realities of this teenage pastime and instead uses the topic as a symbol of society's penchant for anger, disillusionment and peacocking. In a lower middle class suburb on the border of Mexico near San Diego, a family "earns their blood" when they practice and stage a recorded wrestling match complete with ridiculous characters: The Destroyer, King of Tears, Hellgirl, The Traveler, The Mantis, and Komodo Dragon. The premise sounds a bit shaky and at times the storyline wanes from the absurd to the gratuitous to the downright silly but Birnbaum manages to always up the ante just when it seems nothing more could possibly be explored in this serrated cut vein dramedy.

In lesser hands, the script would still entertain but it could pose as a dangerous enterprise for any less capable theater company or actor lacking health insurance. The toll and demand on the ensemble is extraordinarily high as they whip around, belly flop, whack, kick, and pummel and grapple each other on a padded floor or the occasional pinball ricochet against a mattress. There are moments when the choreography hugs dangerously close to being too real but this cast proves sturdy and flexible enough to take the blows like champions. This alone is almost worth the price of admission, but the jaw-dropping humor and colorful characters combined gives this play real heft beyond shock value alone. Is it shocking? Oh, yes, and exhilarating.

It's difficult to even attempt to compare or categorize Birnbaum's testosterone charged juggernaut up against even the sharpest family dramas like "Other Desert Cities" set to open this weekend at ICT in Long Beach or "August: Osage County" because his animal is a beast with all teeth and claws tearing through the lace curtain of civility with its savage bent, brutal dialogue and harsh truths about the human condition—mainly the darkest aspects of man.

Social order and control are illuminated between the sexes and cross into familial lines when Chuck (Ian Bamberg) is hopped up on the idea of strangers viewing his backyard wrestling epic as he keeps his best friend Ray (Adan Rocha) in subservience and his girlfriend Lilith (Esmer Kazvinova) on a short but weak leash. His single mother Carrie (Jacqueline Wright), a tired, bitter and tough cookie gets in on the action with a few interesting sexual twists and tension until Chuck's deadbeat father Ted (Hugo Armstrong) pays the family an unexpected visit. Equal parts mother bear/wildcat/dominatrix, Carrie defends her modest home only to lose the war of loyalties as Ted provides his son a male figure and offers insincere promises of a future together. The fractured family inevitably unites to create a spectacular three-ring circus on video, but the violence is nothing compared to the thinly-veiled contempt and resentment that simmers until it boils over.

Much of this plot and tomfoolery wouldn't be as effective but for the outstanding technical and perfectly cast ensemble. Everything in this production is first-rate which gives a lot of credibility to the play itself. Set design by Stephen Gifford offers a dismal, deserted background with modular props such as a rolling fence and screen door sparking the audience's imagination.

The cast is exceptionally solid, professional and deserve high praise for their fearless conviction as well as their ability to perform impressive stunts and stage combat choreographed by Ahmed Best. Rocha and Bamberg are not only well-suited in their adolescent angst-filled roles but find moments to charm and endear themselves when they aren't dead set on male posturing. Richard Azurdia as Ray's guide on the other side of the border gives his role further authenticity. Kazvinova finds the vulnerable shades to her loner, lost femme fatale as Chuck's convenient gal pal. Armstrong is comic and well-balanced against the true star of this vehicle, Ms. Wright. Jacqueline Wright continues to amaze local audiences with her varied and always spot-on performances but this show reveals her dynamism. Her physical pouncing is matched by her deadpan but sarcastic deliveries of some of the best lines. Watching her as Carrie is riveting, thrilling and simply a joy every time she saunters onstage.

Highlights to whet your appetite is a tooth being pulled with a set of pliers (see photo), oral sex with Carrie seated on top of her former flame's face until she literally screams into submission, a knockdown, drag out fight under the risers whereby the audience can feel the blows, a cut off ear ala Reservoir Dogs, and a sparring match between Komodo Dragon and the Destroyer with the former outfitted in various homemade accoutrements. There's blood, busted out teeth and full throttle action throughout that if it doesn't make you laugh it will at least leave a visceral impression.

"Backyard" ironically is about amateur wrestling but the show itself is anything but amateur hour. Earn your blood by seeing what is actually underneath all the violence, sex and adult situations, a play with depth, humor and enlightening statements about the carnivorous and cannibalistic tendencies we try to keep from emerging to the surface. It's bloody ridiculous as we are too, but if you're a puss (and you know if you are) then don't expect this Alpha-moded play to apologize for your squirming in the seat as it goes all balls out.

Runs through July 13
Fri & Sat @ 8 p.m.
Sundays @ 7 p.m.
Atwater Village Theater
3269 Casitas Avenue
Atwater Village, CA  90039
Tickets: $25-$30
PH: 310-307-3753
Free on-site parking

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