The Dark Knightmare Before Christmas and Breaking Hunger
Recent years have seen the music industry taken over by “mashup artists” – DJs who meld numerous popular songs into a surprising, coherent whole. There’s a similar philosophy at work behind the second year of Landless Theatre Company’s wacky, genial Mashup Festival, which invites audiences to see some of pop culture’s most varied and enduring characters clash on stage. The four-play Mashup Festival is split into two halves, with the first two “all-ages” plays, The Dark Knightmare Before Christmas and Breaking Hunger, showing earlier in the evening. (My colleague, Steve Hallex, reviewed the latter, raunchier half of the festival).
The night opens, appropriately enough, with The Dark Knightmare Before Christmas, a short, offbeat musical play that weds the plot of stop-motion film “The Nightmare Before Christmas” to the Batman franchise. Though the play’s title implies a mashup centered on Christopher Nolan’s second Batman film – 2008’s “The Dark Knight” –The Dark Knightmare Before Christmas lovingly invokes the full spectrum of Batman lore, from the camp-classic 1960s TV series featuring Adam West to 1997’s pun-loaded “Batman & Robin” by director Joel Schumacher.
The Dark Knightmare Before Christmas – which is narrated, both amusingly and inexplicably, by Captain Jean-Luc Picard of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” – revolves primarily around the machinations of Batman’s villainous “Rogues Gallery (their members, which include cellophane-thin parodies like Too-Face, The Jokester, and Penguinn, will be familiar to anyone who has even a passing familiarity with the Caped Crusader). As Baetmaen and Robbin race around Gotham City, disarming the various villains, the play maintains a loose, contagiously goofy feel that keeps both puns and punches rolling.
Though the entire cast acquits itself well, Matthew Baughman’s “Riddlester” steals the show with “I’m Pissed,” an energetic one-man number that details his long-simmering frustrations with the Dark Knight. The overall vibe is likably low-rent, but an impressive level of thought has gone into The Dark Knightmare Before Christmas’ costumes and performances, which are universally successful at representing the pop-culture icons being evoked.
A similar level of care has gone into writer Steve Custer’s sharply-written dialogue, which offers ample laughs for Bat-Fans and Batman amateurs alike. The playbill describes the philosophy behind the Mashup Festival as “parodies, with love,” and the irreverence of The Dark Knightmare Before Christmas betrays a genuine reverence for the numerous series being mocked. The most familiar songs from “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” including “This is Halloween” and “Sally’s Song,” are cleverly and playfully tweaked throughout. The Batman references are even stronger; Anyone who’s seen “The Dark Knight” can make a “why so serious?” joke, but it takes a genuine diehard to name-check the limited series “Batman: The Long Halloween,” or to reference the unfortunate fate that Barbara Gordon eventually meets in the Batman comics. If there’s anything to complain about, it’s the strange timing of the play, which premieres just a few weeks after the Christmas season that its story is built around.
But on the whole, there’s little to analyze here and plenty to enjoy. From its goofy beginning to its goofier end, The Dark Knightmare Before Christmas dispenses with any pretense of depth in favor of a different (though no less admirable) artistic goal: fun. This is the theatrical equivalent of cotton candy: bright, fun, and happily disposable, leaving plenty of room for more.
The “more” of the evening comes in the form of the second “all-ages” mashup: Breaking Hunger, a riff on Hollywood’s vampire craze that draws its primary inspiration from “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games.” Protagonist Catnip finds herself drafted into a battle to the death called “The Twilight Games” – and drawn to Pedward, a well-coiffed vampire who insists on protecting her from the other vampires who want to make her their prey.
Breaking Hunger feels less ambitious than The Dark Knightmare Before Christmas – and suffers a bit by comparison – but it’s similarly pitched, and similarly entertaining. Breaking Hunger takes the mash-up concept even more to heart than its predecessor, tossing characters from “Underworld,” “Buffy The Vampire Slayer,” and even “Sesame Street” into the battle royale and letting their numbers dwindle one by one. Though every performance hits the right notes, Gabriel Swee, who plays an amusingly whinier version of the already-whiny werewolf in “Twilight,” deserves particular praise. Breaking Hunger gets funnier and more twisted as it continues, culminating in a disgusting, hilariously gory representation of the vampiric circle of life (I was advised not to sit in the front row of Breaking Hunger – a recommendation I emphatically pass along).
The biggest issue with Breaking Hunger, like The Dark Knightmare Before Christmas, is its timing, though this play had the opposite problem of being too far ahead; though the Hunger Games series has conquered the young-adult literature world, its film adaptation won’t be release until March of this year. But the jokes are fast, funny, and accessible enough to stand alone, and non-fans should still find plenty to enjoy.
And that’s even more true of the “all-ages” half of the Festival when taken as a whole. In tandem, The Dark Knightmare Before Christmas and Breaking Hunger are more than the sum of their parts; they’re a smart, irreverent take on the contemporary pop-culture landscape. And they’re a hell of a lot of fun. If you count yourself among the many, many fans of the many, many franchises parodied here – or a fan of quirky, breezy theatre in general – consider this review a hearty endorsement.
The Landless Mashup Festival continues thru Jan 28, 2012 at DC Arts Center, 2438 18th Street NW, Washington, DC.
Details and tickets
The Dark Knightmare Before Christmas
By Steve Custer
Directed by Steve Custer
By Andrew Lloyd Baghmaun
Directed by Emily Ann Jablonski
The Landless Mashup Festival is produced by Landless Theatre Company
Reviewed by Scott Meslow
Running Time: One and a half hours with one intermission