Come with me as we take a journey back in time. RECEIVERS is accidentally a period piece from the early 90s which serves as a cautionary museum of toasted thoughts and theatrical ignorance. As noble as the production’s aims are and as talented as the cast is, no really they are, the ‘writing’ is so embarrassingly misguided that noticing the few but remarkable strengths is like saying ‘but he’s just so funny’. That’s not enough; it was heart-breaking to see the amount of effort and passion that was put into this production because if you put glitter on the proverbial it’s still the proverbial.
I believe when giving feedback, or staging an intervention, one starts with positive reinforcement so I will say that every performer was impressive. I speak not from personal experience, as I’m not sure who is reading this, but it reminded me of strip-club. I’m not even sure this actually happens but it’s what I felt when I looked in the actors’ eyes. Like a talented dancer reduced to twerking through circumstance and lack of opportunity, the cast of RECEIVERS know their craft but they are stuck on the pole of weak writing. To be able to display true depth in something so awkwardly shallow is simultaneously a joy to behold and devastating to witness. The cast is strong and it would be one of those rare theatre moments of synchronicity if they had material that could meet their ability.
And to be entirely honest, the production values were more or less adequate. See, two good things. Okay, the sound design was inconsistent but it had less bad points than points that weren’t offensive. There was something happening with the levels in that there were no levels with some moments being ruined by inappropriate volume. The projection of the actor’s was always great, even when there were other audio distractions but that wasn’t the sound design and goes back to the performers’ skill. The lighting was limited but clever and resourceful. With a mostly minimalist set, this is another aspect that works and conveys a variety of locations, real and imagined, with a nuanced approach that made worlds out of very little.
Well you might note, gentle reader, these two aspects fall under the purview of the director. To a qualified extent this is correct in that the production’s over-arching vision is that of the director but, looking at the evidence, it is more likely that the cast and the crew worked within the limitations of the director (who was working with the Geneva Conventions violating confines of the torturous script) to demonstrate their craft, not in hubris but with confidence. Some of the positive things to unexpectedly leap from the wreckage are an amazing development of character shells, there is seemingly nothing in the text to hook the characterisation on, and the deft adaptation to the space to the staging working with what she has. However, those two points turn out to be director Amanda Falson’s petard. The actors can act, as repeatedly mentioned they do so very well, but just because someone can do something doesn’t mean they have to do it all the time. By this, the directing seemed like the dial was stuck on eleven. The main character, Hedrick, is a complicated character and mostly entirely appropriate with his re/actions. This is the only one, the others are either parodies or so emotionally highly tuned that it becomes tiresome. Yes, I know you can scream and perform emotional distress but can you do anything else? This is not the fault of the performer but it falls on the director, the writer, or both. If it was so disjunctive to what was in the script then surely the writer would have stepped in. Please. Otherwise, what kind of blackmail must have been applied for a director to agree to present this work? The performances aren’t handled and the characters seem to run away with the script or the script has created monsters. The play was full of incomprehensible motivation and arbitrary stage-business. The staging is inventive and for the most part works but there was some masking and the focus created by the staging sometimes missed important points. After a few more runs with non-traditional staging, the director will be able to negotiate the space more. Another thing is while we all understand that this was produced on a small budget sometimes this became horribly apparent, such as the protective covering on the television. I wasn’t sure if it was subtextual commentary or budgetary restrictions that had the actors sharing a bottle of champagne by pouring an empty bottle into empty glasses. I’m pretty sure it was fiscal. This distracts from the action, especially with something so ‘absurd’ (don’t get me started) where it could have many meanings or it might just be poor preparation. I understand taking pride in poverty but a directorial choice such as this should be deliberate and based on the production vision. If you want to be taken seriously then don’t have doll’s tea parties.
Of course, with this script, perhaps the production doesn’t want to be taken seriously. This is where our journey into the past really takes off. Some of the more egregious aspects of this production must have resulted from this script in that the text has a lack of awareness which can’t help but affect the rest of the play. A herd is only as fast as its slowest member. There are some parts of the script that are well-written, the opening monologue set the bar for the rest of the show very high, but take as a whole the script feels as if it was written in a vacuum long ago. RECEIVERS bills itself as ‘(a)n absurd, dark, sci-fi comedy’ and these adjectives are a useful way to see why the play fails.
While I realise that ‘absurd’ doesn’t necessarily imply the absurdist theatre context, when used in the narrative arts it becomes problematic when it is used as an excuse. RECEIVERS is unapologetically incongruous but to claim this as a mode of structure is lazy. With the most generous interpretation, this play might be seen as collection of sketches. That said, even a sketch has to have some kind of narrative continuity and to be rammed into a play there should be some kind of through-line. There was a very thin line but it couldn’t support the play. There is a reason that nobody directly adapts a dream to a narrative context, because it doesn’t make sense. I admit that, by definition, this play is absurd however this shouldn’t be a point for promotion but a statement of warning. Another way that the play could be described as absurd is that surreal things happen, lots of them. Some people might be so easily amused or in such dire need for distraction that watching people speak in funny voices, move like cartoons, and do odd things for no reason is their height of entertainment. If so, see this. In the play, the dialogue is likened to dementia and I think this was intended as metatextual cleverness but its closer to being a review.
‘Dark’ they say, and from the above reference to senility you can tell they mean it. I like my humour anthracite but dark humour is more than just saying ‘dying people, hey? Am I Right?’ They don’t claim that it is darkly humorous, just dark. To this I say, so? They speak a list of imprecations against the human condition but the way they do it makes it seem like somebody found a literary freedom so they intend to show this off with a script that has all the nasty expletives, extreme sexuality, and morbid commentary they can for no other reason than because they can. This is frustratingly juvenile. Without context, motivation, or any thought outside of being outrageous it becomes tiresome.
While on this topic of the forbidden, I can’t remember the last time I have seen such frequent and prolonged references to flatulence. And similarly all the sex jokes that feel like they were written by someone who has never had sex (not that I’m judging, each to their own). Again, this kind of humour has to be handled well or it appears childish. Although, I would think it could be left out altogether but in some circumstances I’m sure it progresses the story in some way. In this play this type of humour is heaped without regard. It loses any shock value, if it ever had any, and the jokes fall flat. I mentioned this here because I was talking about humour. I’m not saying a fart joke is dark, depending on what you ate. (There you go, you can use that one free of charge.)
You have to be careful calling something sci-fi, although on the other hand it is very easy as you can throw in a space station and have a masterpiece. The main idea is a strong genre concept: The term ‘RECEIVERS’ obviously refers to those that pick-up transmissions from external sources. External sources is defined contextually and can also refer to alien, like, space alien. That’s a good idea that could have been explored but it is a shame that the interesting plot seed was sown in barren soil. There are sci-fi tropes but they are dismissed quickly or used as a set-up for a fart joke. Sci-fi theatre, as sci-fi anywhere, should take the idea and use that as being integral to story world. I wouldn’t set Hamlet on a space ship and call it sci-fi, but some would.
It is by calling itself a comedy that the real litigation starts. Comedy is subjective, I know. Just because I don’t find something funny doesn’t mean that a whole room of people won’t. My issue comes from the humour being so dated and so niche. I say dated because it is the same type of ‘comedy’ as found in the 80s and 90s, political and social satire spiced up with the scatological to appeal to everyone. Not only is that style of humour dated but the references that are used are similarly anachronistic. As an example, jokes about communists, repeated jokes about communists, don’t really connect anymore and I assure you it isn’t an age thing. Society has changed. Even if the joke about communists has more to do with a man perceiving themselves a general against the communist threat it is still out of touch. If this was a drama, perhaps the idea has weight, but it insists it is funny. Likewise, the sexist humour just shouldn’t be accepted and there is a lot in this, to the point that one character seems to exist entirely as a sexist comment. HAHAHA, someone's daughter is being oppressed. HAHAHAHA. No, no thank you. I think everything you need to know about the ‘comedy’ in this ‘work’ can be illustrated with a slight spoiler. Imagine the scene, there on a space station, the ‘general’ starts having a fairly intense reaction to the situation and the only way our hero thinks to alter the general’s thinking is to mention the death camps. Not just the death camps but specifically, and it is said, Nazi Death Camps. Comedy gold.
I realise that I’m probably not the demographic that this production is aimed at. To be fair, a lot of audience members were laughing, hard and constant. While there was a very active smoke machine, the fumes can’t be responsible for all the laughter: I’m neither for or against drugs but I don’t laugh at stoner humour, especially not when it’s repeated, and I don’t laugh at stoner humour. (You can use that one too.) I am comfortable with a female character who is neither psychologically disturbed or a prostitute. I don’t really find anything funny about stereotypes. Swear words and fart jokes just… Look, I can’t even. The point is that my experience with theatre and my social awareness has changed. Maybe, years ago, and with the right substances or motivation, I would think this is entertainment. But it isn’t the past, it’s now, and RECEIVERS is an aggressively irrelevant play.