“All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream,” Edgar Allen Poe.
You have to wonder what the folks behind the Tragically Comic Players were thinking when it came to staging their latest production, What’s Cooking? George’s Last Dream. Maybe it was to support writer/director Phil Wagner’s enigmatic ideal, or perhaps they wanted to play with the strange Inception-style homage to neo-realist director Frederico Fellini.
However, this strange, but funny existential play would have been better suited for the Fringe circuit rather than at the Schubert Centre during Vernon Winter Carnival.
That’s not saying I didn’t enjoy it. It’s just that I was confounded at times. And I may not have been the only one on preview night scratching his/her own head.
The play had a few laugh-out-loud moments, especially with the slow motion Matrix-like fight scene, and the puppet improv piece where two members of the audience controlled the movement of the actors.
There was also some fine dancing to Beat Generation-style jazz music (complete with live drumming provided by Neil Morrison) and also some great acting from the cast. I just wonder if anyone really “got” what was going on? The plot was rather hazy at best.
Even the play’s assistant stage manager (who was actually the stage manager in the play within a dream) asks the question: “existentialism, in Vernon?” Really we may not be ready for Ayn Rand or Jean-Paul Sartre at Carnival, just yet.
Local musician Jackson Mace (of classic rock band MACE) got things started before the curtain opened, playing some fine tunes by the likes of Trooper and Robert Johnson. And he also played during the show’s two intermissions, a welcome respite.
Now please bear with me as I try to get the “facts” right:
The play follows George (Wagner), a shoe salesman, who comes off the stage in gangster-like swagger to sit down at a table reserved at the front to watch the action unfold. He snaps his fingers and the lights come on to a bar scene, where an Englishman named Bob (actually a debonair Englishman named Bob Oldfield) and a French-Canadian woman named Liette (the delightful Regina Picco) are trying to hide a gun in a jar full of cocktail umbrellas.
There’s also some reference to something cooking in the kitchen.
George eventually stops the action. You come to realize that you are in his dream, and he is controlling the play, which is set in a dinner theatre… And then a gun pops you out of your haze. (And boy, despite being warned in the program about a loud bang, I was still jolted out of my seat.)
Everything then sort of slips between reality and dream, often when you’re unaware, sort of like that Oscar-nominated film starring Leonardo DiCaprio. However, instead we, the audience, are the inceptors trying to make sense of what’s going on.
George’s dream eventually evolves into characters coming to life: collectible doll Clara (the beautiful and talented Amy Wagner) who is being pursued by assassins The Brats, Brassy and Trashy (played with leggy sass by Kelsey Paulin and cute-with-’tude April Trigg).
Why they want to kill her isn’t exactly clear, but Clara eventually arrives at a hotel in disguise as Insp. Clouseau (yes, of Pink Panther fame) and she brings along her sidekick Kato (master of physical theatrics Alex Corso-Johnstone), who I gather was taking a break from that abysmal Green Hornet film.
Meanwhile, Clara’s paramour, James Blond (Levi Perigo, who should be in radio with that golden voice), takes on a few parts, including George and later Freud to try and interpret what it all means. Also trying to figure things out are the “stage managers” (Melanie Stokes, Rod Neufeld and Mary Dobslaff) who appear every once and a while to get George back in line.
Did I mention there’s also some guy named Rick, who we never see, who has been found dead killed by ground glass in his food(?!)
George’s love interests also make an appearance in the form of the Pink Panther (Picco, hot in pink) and a dashing gangster (Toni “Geneva” Rose). Everything then breaks out into one heck of a cat fight, and a dizzying dance scene to the Peter Gunn theme by Henry Mancini. (I hope the actors signed waivers before enlisting in the show, as some of those on-the-ground scuffles looked like they could cause some damage.)
The dancing and cavorting going on both on and off the stage was a lot of fun, but after all was said and done, and it turns out the actors were not just dancing but taking their bows, I had to wonder if it was my brain that was cooking.
The dinner theatre crowd can make up their own minds when the play continues at the Schubert Centre tonight and Saturday. Dinner is at 6:30 p.m. with the show following at 7:30. Tickets are $45 at the Vernon Winter Carnival office. Call 545-2236 or order online at www.vernonwintercarnival.com.