As paper-thin and disposable as a one-sentence fortune and about as filling as the cookie it came in, Mark Brown and Paul Mirkovitch’s musical pseudo-homage to China is getting a silly, sporadically successful production at DCAC in Adams Morgan, thanks to the eager and disheveled efforts of Landless Artistic Director Andrew Lloyd Baughman, his brother Matt Baughman, and relative newcomer Ben Demers.
The three actors thoroughly chop up the busy job of relating a short, twisted history of China within the span of 90 minutes, in what becomes a revolving door of scene sketches involving constant costume, wig, and hat changes. It would all be pretty good farce if there were any plot at all. Instead, the actors bicker about semantics and sequence, and offer unsolicited acting advice to each other mid-scene. Fortunately, it’s all on purpose, and often the humor works. The play, which had its aggressively kooky premiere at the New York Fringe festival in 2008, fully intends to be a bad play. Or, more accurately, a bad attempt at a bad play, nothing more noble than the artless, slapdash sum of its cheap jokes (these would be mostly puns) and disposable parts.
But in the face of such a dyspeptic swirl of vaudeville schtick — featuring songs with titles like “Evil Is a Yellow Face” — it’s important to remember that shows must be judged on the degree to which they achieve what they set out to do. And, ideally, whether they have any chance of reaching a measurable audience. Mercifully, Landless is under no impression that the show’s rudimentary series of songs and pretend-history lessons amount to more than some rude, winking tomfoolery. Brown and Mirkovitch go to great lengths to ensure that the three white male performers come off as self-aware anti-experts, charming in their desire to make you laugh but, at the end of the day, just asinine fools with a trunk full of bad theatre ideas.
It’s fun stuff, and though the show deflates to dangerously low levels at moments — the internal arguing between straight-man Demers and the bombastic Baughmans serves some structural purpose but, as comedy, is dead in the water — the trio manage to keep it all afloat. The foot-binding ballad “Lotus Shoes” and, toward the end, a kinda-catchy song about Tiananmen Square are particular high points. Demers grabs a Baughman to play his dummy for an unexpected bit of ventriloquism, in which the latter gets to show off his Fozzy Bear impression. And the ongoing, frantically competitive back-and-forth keeps the engine running underneath the whole big dumb thing, although even with an intermission the show barely manages to convincingly cover an hour and a half.
The gang doesn’t always manage to sell their self-professed idiocy as actual entertainment, and a sizeable handful of moments just don’t work. “Peking Man,” one of China’s earliest inhabitants, turns out to be a better idea for a song than, well… an actual song. The Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the 20th century is reenacted, not surprisingly, with boxers, and some bad accents from the Rocky movies. The bizarre, ongoing conflation with Latin America (oh, did the title of the show tip you off?) is pretty funny, but not more than half a dozen times, and I’m rounding up to be nice. But hey, that’s the script. And even though it’s mostly a graveyard of bad puns, it’s actually not a terrible piece of comic writing, mostly bad in what can only be described as the right ways.
So how to perform and sell those parts that turn out to be bad in the bad ways? In ninety-nine shows out of a hundred, it’s in the acting. But in China: The Whole Enchilada, the jokes are so corny that it would take a corny joke about corn to describe how corny they are. Which means, it’s probably best that the actors keep plowing through blindly. The worst thing is to wait for laughs that don’t come, so the show actually seems to work best when the endless gags and non sequiters come just a little too fast for us to follow. Mild doses of ad libbing from Demers and the Baughmans do a welcome job of keeping things fresh too. And, despite all good sense, the audience laughs.
The show’s point of satire is a moving target. Some of the poking fun at China is about actual Chinese custom. An even larger amount of teasing goes into how clueless the Western world is about China. Who’s meant to feel the barbed end of the the stick? I doubt it’s the Chinese. Can’t say it’s anyone, really. The show throws it arms so wide and lobs its jokes so nonchalantly that it seems hard for any particular population to take offense. Except, perhaps, any lost souls who wandered over to DCAC looking for a primer on Latin American cuisine.
[Ben Demers makes his acting debut on this site, where he otherwise appears as a reviewer. This has not affected the objectivity of the review.]
China: The Whole Enchilada
written by Mark Brown, with additional music and arrangements by Paul Mirkovitch
Directed by John Sadowsky
Produced by Landless Theatre Co.
Reviewed by Hunter Styles
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes with an intermission
- Celia Wren . Washington Post
Bob Anthony . AllArtsReview4You
- Diane Holcomb Wilsher . TheAccidentalThespian