Hotels rooms are one of those things we largely take for granted but are rich fodder for those of us with overactive imaginations who consistently wonder about the other people who have previously inhabited the same spaces as us. Every rented room we’ve stayed in has been occupied by hundreds or thousands of other strangers, each living out their own unique experiences in the same generic room—ranging from the mundane to the sordid to the ecstatic. This is rich soil into which storytellers can plant seeds.
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Enter Flying V Theatre with their latest devised production, Crystal Creek Motel. The conceit will be familiar to fans of the HBO series Room 104—the show offers a voyeuristic glimpse into the goings-on in one motel room across a span of time. In this case, the location is room 109 at the eponymous Crystal Creek Motel, an unassuming roadside stopover in the unspecified “up North” and the time is once a month for the entirety of the year 2003. (The significance of this particular year is never explained, or at least not in a way that I understood.) Thus, we’re presented with a unifying framework for a series of 12 different vignettes, ranging from the silly to the seedy to the sublime.
Our sense of place is immediately established thanks to top-notch design work. Jos B. Musumeci, Jr.’s set design puts us squarely in a convincingly real, cookie-cutter motel room in Anytown, USA, with ample secrets lurking beneath the surface. Between each vignette, Paul Deziel’s projections take us back to 2003 with a wide array of clips from news broadcasts and reality TV shows flashing on the walls. But perhaps the most visceral temporal marker is Neil McFadden’s sound design, hitting every nostalgia center on the head with early-aughts tent poles like “Skater Boy,” “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight,” “So Yesterday,” “Move Your Feet,” and the Dixie Chicks’ cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide.”
Into this vortex of pop culture references enters an ensemble cast comprised of Linda Bard, Natalie Cutcher, Erin Denman, James Finley, Julieta Gozalo, Jordan Clark Halsey, Madeline Key, Paz Lopez, Momo Nakamura, and Quincy Vicks, all of whom embody a wide variety of roles. One of the most unifying and delightful aspects of the show is the cleaning staff, played by Gonzalo and Denman, who not only reset the stage between each scene, but also get their own, nearly wordless yet entirely satisfying, story arc. Similarly, the pre-recorded, offstage voice of the check-in clerk adds a fun bit of levity (after a string of interactions with blustery, in-a-rush patrons, he amusingly wonders, “Is it me? Am I the rude one?”) and context to the scenes that follow.
One of the things I noticed when doing my pre-show research is that no one particular writer—or even stable of writers—is prominently credited. I found this odd, as the setup seemed to lend itself to the increasingly popular 10-minute play festival structure. I was pleasantly surprised to find almost no dialog in the first act; instead, most of the stories are told through pantomime, choreography, special effects, and sound. It was a refreshingly creative take on a familiar format.
As with any collection of scenes, some stand out as more successful or memorable than others—and many of these happen to be more movement-based. Highlights for me included February, directed by Daniel Mori and starring Finley and Vicks as two men meeting for what appears to be a clandestine same-sex hookup that then turns into an energetic pro wrestling match (with help from consultants Tim German and Joey Ibanez) and then back into a same-sex hookup. It reminded me of the Barbara Kruger art piece-turned-meme Untitled, which asserts “You construct intricate rituals which allow you to touch the skin of other men,” which I just happened to be researching earlier in the day.
Crystal Creek Motel closes November 2, 2019. Details and tickets
Another memorable piece is May, directed by Tonia Sina and Jason Schlafstein, in which a flight attendant (Cutcher) and her beau (Finley) engage in an awkward, unsatisfying quickie, and then reset and do it again, better the second time. And one of the most moving moments came near the end of the show in the form of November, directed by Lee Liebeskind and choreographed by Tiffanie Horner, in which a man (Finley, again) fights and dances with the memory of his younger brother (Halsey), whose funeral he has just attended.
It turns out that the more dialog-heavy snippets are the ones what were the least successful for me. August, directed by Kelly Colburn, for example, has a fun, campy, horror-inspired premise—complete with delightful narration—in which Patti (Lopez) has a wicked plot to turn her former childhood friend, Debbi (Bard) into her next meal. While the performances and premise are solid, the story itself lacks a bit of cohesion and doesn’t go anywhere particularly surprising. Similarly, September, directed Aria Velz and written with KJ Moran, has a fun setup in which four cousins (Finley, Halsey, Key, and Nakamura) tear the room apart searching for their deceased grandmother’s inheritance, but it just sort of… ends. The vignettes struck me as getting weirder as they went, and these more scripted pieces all seemed to be stuck together in the second act—perhaps some more variation in their placement within the show would have helped them land more effectively.
Overall, Crystal Creek Motel is a surprising, campy showcase of some of the area’s top talent—both on stage and behind the scenes—and a worthy spin to the short play genre. “We spend our lives in a place you’re supposed to leave,” muses one of the cleaning staff, but this is one seedy motel I wouldn’t have minded spending more time in.
Crystal Creek Motel. Directed by Kelly Coburn, Robert Bowen Smith, Lee Liebeskind, Daniel Mori, Jason Schlafstein, Tonia Sina, and Aria Velz. Featuring Linda Bard, Natalie Cutcher, Erin Denman, James Finley, Julieta Gozalo, Jordan Clark Halsey, Madeline Key, Paz Lopez, Momo Nakamura, and Quincy Vicks. Assistant directors: Nerissa Hart, Madeleine Regina, and Ruben Vellekoop. Special effects design: Andrew Berry. Projections design: Paul Deziel. Costume design: Brittany Graham. Scenic charge: Amber Kilpatrick. Sound design: Neil McFadden. Set design: Jos B. Musumeci, Jr. Props and mask design: Andrea “Dre” Moore. Dramaturgy: Susanna Pretzer. Fight and intimacy direction: Jonathan Ezra Rubin. Lighting design: Kristin A. Thompson. Stage manager: Evangelina M. Hakes. Produced by Flying V. Reviewed by John Bavoso.