What to do with Cartoon? Steve Yockey’s play, staged by John Beane and Insurgo Theater, aims for postmodern hilarity and insightful cultural critique, but doesn’t have the chops to deal with the situation it provides.
In the play, a cartoon world is held in stasis by Esther (played by Sara Spraker) and her powerful hammer, which lets her keep a totalitarian grip over the rest of the cartoon characters. This grip is thwarted when Trouble (Tony Foresta) steals the hammer to start a revolution. Things have to get better, he reasons. If people can act freely, the world will surely improve, right? He is, of course, horribly wrong. As Winston Puppet (Gabriel Gentile) puts it once he has cast off his strings and finds himself unable to move: Ropes and restrictions “make things easier.” The play also reiterates its fascism (social and economic regimentation, with the ruling party aligned with business) in its form, by having the autocratic dictator, Esther, interrupt the vignettes constituting the action of the play with comedic bits “brought to you by” a fictional corporation.
Okay, so maybe this seems out there, and it kinda is: a live-action cartoon, set against a backdrop of fascism, with blood packets. (Yeah, these cartoon characters die, and not in a piano-falls-on-head-then-they-pop-back-up kind of way. If you’re sitting in the first few rows, bring your Blue Man ponchos, as the blood definitely flies.) But there’s an unsatisfying itch in this production. Despite the arch, culturally knowing tone of the play, there’s no indication that it is anything but deadly serious about its underlying theme: free will bad, fascism good. It’s impossible to discuss the ending without spoiling it, but in addition to the facile reasoning that TV keeps us enslaved, there’s no sense that we can do anything about it. Quite the fatalistic viewpoint, and it brings up a host of questions Cartoon seems content to ignore—the fascist metaphor is hammered home but never properly explored.
The staging also feels lifeless despite its frenetic movement; too often, it seems like actors are trying to represent an idea, rather than the actual reality of a situation or interaction. Still, bringing cartoon characters to life creates additional demands for role physicalization, and in this all the actors do good work, especially Emily Lauren as Damsel and Matt Pedraza as the Suitor.
Though it’s good to see Insurgo producing the work of young, irreverent playwrights, Cartoon simply isn’t the best of what’s out there at the moment.