‘The Poseidon Adventure’—Coming to a Stage Near You!

Alternative Theater Rides a Populist Wave

"The audience's voice needs to be heard," says Adam Adams of the DUMBO-based company One Arm Red. He's created his entire organization around this community aesthetic, relying on what he calls "forum theater"—colloquies where audience input is solicited to develop pieces. His best-known work, The Gospel Truth Family Hour, was developed in this fashion. It began life as a Who-style rock opera at Surf Reality in 1997, became a hit of the 1998 NYC Fringe Festival in an expanded version, and, in its most recent incarnation at his DUMBO theater, Red Lab, has become a full-blown tent revival with gospel chorus and band, and a harrowing, soul-searching two-hour sermon delivered by its creator. At each step of the way, the audience was involved in the piece's creation. Adams's next plan is to take the show on the road in a tour bus that will open up into a stage, bringing the piece to rural communities across the country, whether they have a taste for theater or not.

One show that won't be making a tour of Appalachia anytime soon is Surf Reality's Grindhouse-a-Go-Go, which uses sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll to pack them in at midnight. "Comedy and sex are closely related," says Surf's Robert Prichard. "It comes from the gut, the crotch, and the belly. The main question I ask myself is, 'When I'm in an audience, what do I want to see?' "

Surf Reality’s Robert Prichard: ‘‘Comedy and sex are closely related.’’
photo: Hiroyuki Ito
Surf Reality’s Robert Prichard: ‘‘Comedy and sex are closely related.’’

The original Grindhouse show, produced by Tom Tenny at Tonic, was one of a slew of neo-burlesque shows, circuses, and vaudevilles that popped up in New York in the late '90s, including the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, the Blue Angel Cabaret, the Moxie Opera Company (which produces the Va Va Voom Room), and the grandmama of them all, Tirza's Wine Bath at Sideshows by the Seashore. (Circus Amok, Tenement Vaudeville, Delicious Vaudeville, and my own American Vaudeville are several others.) Tenny named his show after the adult cinema form (of whom the salient figure is Russ Meyer), a genre characterized by busty women, thin plots, and craven thrills. The "a-go-go" was added when the event moved to Surf Reality and the format was altered to fit the new venue, where Prichard was already developing what amounted to a rep company of Lower East Side bizarros, with names like Rev Jen, the Purple Organ, Chocolate Puddin', Faceboy, and Reverend Hank. These most solo of solo performers had been interacting in tentative ways at Surf's late-night variety shows, events with names such as "Fuck Me Up the Ass With a Strap-on Dildo" and "Mistress Elsa's Bondage Theatre Players." At Grindhouse, the actors' carefully worked-out personas interact in loose commedia-like shows that allow copious opportunities for improvised soliloquies that amount to stand-up routines. The plots are purposefully negligible. The real appeal are the comic riffs, bits of slapstick, songs, occasional topless dancers, free beer, and "mandatory drunken gay orgy" that follows the show. As an audience member recently gushed, "Free beer and topless women? You've read the mind of America!"

The danger, of course, is when there's no medicine behind that spoonful of sugar. This especially concerns Gemini Collisionworks' Hill, who makes a careful distinction between what he does and what they do on Broadway. "It's a two-way street," says Hill, surrounded by science fiction costumes in the dressing room at Nada. "You have to put on a good show for the audience, but you can never relinquish your intellect, your heart, your own unique point of view. Then it ceases to be art and is just a product. What would be the point of that?"

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