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Theater Review:

"SCI-FI ACTION MOVIE IN SPACE PRISON," Defiant Theatre at American Theatre Company

BY LUCIA MAURO

The latest installment in Defiant Theatre’s on-stage "Action Movie" franchise manages to scale the heights of hard-core lunacy while hitting rock bottom in terms of a product that consistently delivers. It’s clear that "Sci-Fi Action Movie in Space Prison" – written and directed by Joe Foust and now playing in digital surround-sound at American Theatre Company – is not meant to be a sequel to the 1999 "Action Movie: The Director’s Cut" or the previous "Action Movie: The Play." But, like most spin-offs, it pales in comparison to the original.

One of the main reasons has to do with the awkward juxtaposition of "everything-but-the-kitchen-sink" gags with the ad nauseum variations on anal-sex lingo. A homoerotic thriller, which tries to be half-heartedly sensitive to the gay community, "Sci-Fi Action Movie" loses sight of conveying a raucous and meaningful story in a cleverly choreographed fashion. Sure, there are side-splitting moments of uninhibited glee – most of them involving Michael Mazzara’s psychotic Col. Kip Kipperflip;Jennifer Gehr as the lethally pissed-off Warden Flattop; and the impossibly rubbery Jim Slonina as Johnny Protagonist. Battles involving swaying box cars and alien beasts prove Defiant’s belligerent ingenuity.

But, overall, "Sci-Fi Action Movie in Space Prison" does not hang together as an effective spoof or deliberately stupid explosion (or, more accurately, implosion) of cliches promoted by the title genres. The production -- featuring a characteristically nimble, fearless and proudly wacky Defiant cast – tends to chug along, lose steam and occasionally pick up steam before running out of gas and wedging itself into a monotonous and unfulfilling theatrical corner.

Even Foust’s and Geoff Coates’ daring fight choreography lacks variety (which, knowing Defiant, may be its own commentary on the raging repetition of real action-movie fight sequences). But the sameness, together with erratic pacing, creates a series of comedic black holes that threaten to swallow viewers’ waning attention spans.

A prison sex-farce, "Sci-Fi Action Movie" centers on Johnny Protagonist, an Everyman framed for snatching a purse and sent to 40 years of hard labor in space prison on the mining planet of Siliconia (cultivated when the world’s supply of silicone was depleted). Once among the hardened criminals with perpetual hard-ons, Johnny unexpectedly falls in love with the horny yet sensitive Tommy Perfect Lover. But when the commissioner bans sex, Johnny joins his cell mates in a galaxy-wide revolt against the penal system. Along the way, they encounter vacuum- and dryer-filter-looking robot loaders (modeled after "Alien") and futuristic dragon-dinosaurs – not to mention their own graphic phallic fantasies.

Nevertheless, the hyper-crude hijinks lose their florid momentum at various times throughout this 90-minute cartoon on stage. Foust and his colleagues must be commended for their endless variations on gay-sex terminology. However, most of the time, their relentless references to fudge sundaes, tossed salad, butt pluggers, schlong sultans and Uranus come across as lame high-school jokes. Tommy Perfect Lover’s double-entendre seduction of Johnny is a prime example: from inquiring about his preference for top or bottom, to an offer to push in his stool to asking if Johnny likes butter or jam on his muffin.

The copious descriptions of fecal matter will make audiences want to go home and give themselves a high colonic. And rarely do two seconds go by without something getting shoved up an orifice – more enema-inspiring images.

"Sci-Fi Action Movie" is not so much offensive as just plain boring and unoriginal. The Defiant folks would no doubt refer to the show’s motto that "in space, everything is dumber." And I understand the intricacies of crafting a show that revels in carefully choreographed stupidity. But "Sci-Fi Action Movie" doesn’t quite strike a balance between the utterly insane and blisteringly intelligent.

Why, for instance, do we need a dated caricature of Hannibal Lecter (Armidor "The Carnivore" Rector) – except to unapologetically reference Defiant’s production of "Red Dragon"? And self-satiric ponderings on the theatrical structure – from character development to "very revealing character names" – simply fall flat.

Defiant demonstrates its tongue-in-cheek resourcefulness in Martin McClendon’s and Micah M. Smyth’s gizmo-ensconced set; Richy Norwood’s cinematic lighting; Prank’s blaring and self-mocking original action music; and Jennifer K. Keller’s costumes fusing fabrics and cuts from Ninja films to men-behind-bars B movies.

In addition to explosive performances by Slonina, Gehr and Mazzara, Kurt Ehrmann as a Grand Ol’ Opry-style sheriff with a penchant for putrid puns and Michele DiMaso as a charmingly deadpan narrator in a glass booth add to the heightened goofiness.

Yet, for the most part, it seems like the creators of "Sci-Fi Action Movie" were too caught up in the giddy ether of outer space -- or another gaseous environment -- to get a grounded perspective on the show’s cosmically clunky gags.•

Defiant Theatre’s production of "Sci-Fi Action Movie in Space Prison" runs through January 19 at American Theatre Company, 1909 W. Byron. Tickets: $15-$20. Call 312-409-0585 or log onto www.defianttheatre.org.
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