“Hey, Mr. Reviewer,” the elegantly-dressed woman in the row behind me shouts. I had explained why I was sitting in the press section to her, and was beginning to regret it. “When’s the show going to start?”
We were at the intermission of The Eelwax Jesus 3-D Pop Music Show. Here’s what had happened so far: even before the show started, a person wearing a gas mask (uncredited) gave us a flyer warning that they (and we all know who “they” are) were about to clone us, if they liked the way we looked (no worries here). Then we watched, on stage, as Meredith (Clare Schmidt) and James (Jonathan Raviv), who appeared to be squabbling siblings, prepared to watch The Eelwax Jesus 3-D Pop Music Show . The cheery Mrs .Worthington (Helen-Jean Arthur), carrying her dead dog Sarah Palin and dressed for tea, soon joined them. Meredith treated us to her morose speculations about war, death, eternity, cloning and microwave ovens while James unsuccessfully attempted to maneuver a remote-control robot across the stage.
In the meantime, Esme (Margot White), dressed for a 1950s cocktail party, relentlessly began to iron the first of what appeared to be ten thousand cloth napkins. Then the show began!
The excessively smooth Mr. Shine (Kurt Zischke) introduced the act, and promised that a lucky audience member would win a toaster! And then Ignatz McGillicudy’s (Lee Sellars) tight four-man band (Michael Pemberton on lead guitar, Joe Rosenfeld on bass, and drummer Danny Tait, as well as Sellars on vocals, keyboard and guitar) rocked the house.
The great music, fine performances (I particularly liked Rosenfeld) and mouthwateringly cynical lyrics were periodically interrupted when Esme turned off her ginormous 1950s radio to answer the phone (this had the effect of shutting down the rest of the stage, performers and audience alike). Sometimes the show went to commercial, which allowed James, Meredith and Mrs. Worthington to resume their antics, sometimes interrupted by a Moon Pie deliverer in a gas mask (James Rana) or the man who lived down the hall but who otherwise appeared to be a homeless person. The show thus recalled the old TV classic “Mystery Science Theater 3000”, in which we watched a man and his robots watching, and commenting on, ancient science fiction movies.
Except that while the old science fiction movies were all lousy, Ignaztz and his band are great! I especially enjoyed the downbeat ballad “Mr. Rumple” and the downbeat rocker “Born in the 21st Century,” but “The Gynecology Song,” which Mr. Shine sang accompanied by a tap-dancing vagina (Kate Nielson) was also great.
So under what circumstances could anyone wonder whether the show had begun? Under these circumstances: the audience has just seen four heady, emotionally searing shows at the Contemporary American Theater Festival. It had seen plays about torture and dementia and white guilt and rage and the depredations of a savage ruler in a war-ravaged land. And then it sees this thing. What’s the deal with the halibut, the audience asks itself when it learns that a man kept a plastic halibut in his pocket because in all of history no man with a plastic halibut on his person had ever suffered an accidental death. Also, why are we watching elephants and camels projected on the two huge screens which overhang the stage? And why the hell is that woman ironing all those napkins?
Well, the answer is: for no reason. Like most of the events in our lives, the events in The Eelwax Jesus 3-D Pop Music Show have no meaning. They are just a Dadaist ceramic bowl to hold the hot soup of the band’s music. To make matters explicit: there is no eelwax; Jesus does not appear; the show has no more 3-D than our ordinary lives do; and the music is rock, not pop. If you are trying to make sense of this, you’re looking at the wrong program.
So kick back, turn off the brainbox, and enjoy the great songs in the second act. Check out Raviv’s dancing during the downbeat power ballad “One of Us Will Kill You”, which Ignatz sings while a 1930s woman does an interminable striptease on one of the screens (no naughty bits are revealed). In the last number, the downbeat “I Want Everything”, the fourth wall – never too sturdy to begin with – collapses entirely. Mr. Shine straps on a Fender, and Mrs. Worthington puts down her dead dog to play a mean fiddle. Meredith, Esme and the tap-dancing vagina (now out of costume) raise their beautiful voices in chorus, and everybody has just the swellest time.
“I’ll never go to anything like that again,” huffs the man behind me, probably correctly, as we make our way out of the Frank Auditorium. If you don’t want to feel like that guy after seeing Eelwax Jesus, you should take some precautions. First, remember that it’s a musical, so it’s not supposed to mean anything. Second, remember that it means even less than an ordinary musical. Third, maybe have a little wine at dinner before you go. If nothing else, it will make the 36-step climb a little easier, or at least less memorable. Fourth, stop thinking like a critic.
Sit back, relax, enjoy. You might even win a toaster.
The Eelwax Jesus 3-D Pop Music Show
Book at Lyrics by Max Baker . Music by Lee Sellars
Directed by Max Baker
Musical Direction by Lee Sellars
Produced by the Contemporary American Theater Festival
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running Time: two hours, including one intermission