Story: Wridget and his friends meet regularly in their quest for the good life. They don’t gather in bars or nightclubs, though, or go in for barbecues with kegs of beer. They meet instead through their ‘avatars’ in an online chat room, where they masquerade as characters they aspire to be rather than who they actually are.
While his friends and even his relatives are content with this faux approach to life, Wridget yearns for something more. He longs to experience life on the ‘outside,’ even with all of its unpredictability. Seeing his sister ‘Buttercup’ content in her marriage to ‘FlyByNite,’ he yearns to settle down himself with the woman of his desire, a shallow sort who goes by the handle ‘Flutterbye.’
Flutterbye, while delighted with Wridget’s proposal of marriage, has no use for the outside world. Wridget’s curiosity, though, is piqued by those unknown prospects, especially when he learns of life’s real possibilities from an ‘out dweller’ named Raskin. Who is right and what is wrong in this topsy-turvy world? Most acutely, what will make Wridget truly happy?
Highlights: Like last year’s production of The Liar by St. Louis Shakespeare, An Invitation Out is unlike anything mounted on a local stage thus far in 2015. That’s good, not bad, as this world premiere being performed by Mustard Seed Theatre under the wise direction of artistic director Deanna Jent is a wonderfully complex and fascinating journey into a troubled, vacuous future as conjured by playwright Shualee Cook.
Other Info: Cook has constructed a clever, consistently fine homage to Oscar Wilde and the comedies of manners so prevalent in Victorian literature. As she writes in her program notes, “The thought that 21st century technology had resurrected the witty epigram – had in fact turned the internet into one gigantic Victorian dinner party…-- made me laugh…made me think…made me write this play.”
Like Wilde, she shows herself to be firmly in command of the English language, offering up witticisms such as “irritation is the sincerest form of battery” or “provoke interest and skepticism, two emotions I admire.”
Unlike Wilde, who wrote his leisurely works in step with the tempo of his times, her nearly three-hour excursion into virtual reality is way too long for modern attention spans. She could prune a good 30 minutes from her languorous two acts and improve both the pacing and the play itself. As is, she has a tendency to over-write, albeit cleverly. The result leaves one feeling intellectually stuffed, like consuming a box of tasty chocolates at one sitting.
Given that caveat, An Invitation Out is quite a wonderful experience. Beth Ashby’s garishly wild costume design is an eye-assaulting blend of Alice in Wonderland and The Jetsons, where flamboyance trumps good taste every time. It’s an impressive, peacock display of creative vulgarity, down to the Star Wars light saber and Batman logo affixed to the yarmulke worn by minister-of-all-religions ‘Reverend Variety.org.’
Mark Wilson’s panoramic scenic design matches Ashby’s hallucinatory outfits, with a marble checkerboard floor and sliding side panels that allow for egress into the ‘outer world’ for avatars. All of this is bracketed by a panel populated with moving video creatures.
Meg Brinkley and Zoe Sullivan add suitably wild,wacky props and sound design, respectively, while Michael Sullivan’s lighting bathes everything in appropriately surrealistic shades. Chris Jent adds projections at the back of the stage that indicate a pleasant enough world which these chatters have chosen to ignore.
Deanna Jent’s direction is carefully modulated, perhaps too much so given the leisurely tempo of this traipse into irresponsibility. She smoothly orchestrates the movements of her impressive cast to maximize the impact of Cook’s colorful characters.
Integral to the success of the production is Bob Thibaut’s thoughtful interpretation of Wridget. His character’s innate common sense and longing for the real experiences of life contrast with the superficial intelligence of his peers (other than Raskin). He is Alice in this 21st century looking glass, offering affecting bits of wisdom even as he follows his quest for significance.
Supporting roles all are nicely etched. They range from the raucous, randy aspirations of Wridget’s ne’er-do-well aunt, who goes by the saucy moniker ‘Aunt Scandalicious’ and is played in appropriately over-the-top style by Alicia Reve Like, to the serious contemplations essayed by Ellie Schwetye as the ruminative out dweller, Raskin, who shows Wridget a world of real possibilities.
Nicole Angeli wins the comic sweepstakes as a haughty Scandinavian maid assembled by Wridget to serve as his domestic and also has amusing turns as a Cockney servant and the female side of ‘Xluci,’ a gender-confused participant who utters Wildean lines with aplomb, whether portrayed by Angeli as the female Xluci or Justin Ivan Brown as her male counterpart.
Brown also does a funny bit as an English butler turned into a hard-drinking, limping Scotsman at XLuci’s amusing whim. Laura Ernst captures the empty-headed chirpiness of Flutterbye, Daniel Lanier is a hoot as the malfunctioning, old-school military man FlyByNite and Julie Venegoni Lanier balances on some bizarre, yellow high heels as FlyByNite’s loving wife and Wridget’s dutiful sister Buttercup. Richard Strelinger’s delicious portrayal of an amiable, wide-eyed, anything-goes minister is saved for the second act but is well worth the wait.
Cook’s writing skills are impressive, but her play will improve if she gets out the pruning shears and trims some of the lovely prose. In the meantime, you’ll likely find An Invitation Out a fascinating if troubling look at the future.
Play: An Invitation Out
Company: Mustard Seed Theatre
Venue: Fontbonne Fine Arts Theatre, Big Bend at Wydown
Dates: April 23, 24, 25, 26, 30, May 1, 2, 3
Tickets: $25-$30 (or Pay with a Can/Pay What You Can on Thursdays); contact 719-8060 or www.mustardseedtheatre.com
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb