“The story so far: In the beginning the Universe was created.
This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.”
– Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
As I took my tree-stump seat (yes, tree-stump) in Z Below, several thoughts ran through my head: how Marykerin Naughton’s set (one of the most radical redesigns of a familiar stage since The Jungle at The Curran) subtly included both stalactites and stalagmites; how I suddenly couldn’t get The Jimmy Castor Bunch’s “Troglodyte” out of my head; how, despite my having taken part in a Savannah Reich show, I wouldn’t know her if she were sitting next to me; and how odd it is to see a necktie-wearing tiger behind an electric keyboard.
That’s FaultLine’s co-AD Cole Ferraiuolo as the tiger, Doug, and this anthropomorphic talking carnivore is actually the least-terrifying aspect of the play. Though fear isn’t what most of the characters want us to feel. In fact, lead characters Dandelion (a vivacious Amitis Rossoukh) and Rocky (a conflicted Conrad Cheeks) want to sell a sure-fire way to happiness for we cavefolk. Oh yeah, I should probably mention that our two leads are the eponymous “cavemen”. And so are we, the audience. The play goes back-and-forth from being straightforward to interactive, so you should know going in that our “enlightened” leads will frequently interact with us, the knuckle-dragging tribe they left behind a year ago.
They begin the show with a Challenge Day-esque survey of the audience, asking for a show of hands from whomever has “felt sad” or “[thought] things will get better someday”. As this gaslighting continues, Doug plays church organ music before switching to an upbeat jingle for our duo to offer a cure. And what is the cure they learned in their year away? What has them so frighteningly peppy? What is this sure-fire way to happiness they’re all-too-well to sell us in this intentionally anachronistic pitch meeting? Agriculture.
Yes, really. Their way to happiness is the crazy idea of clean farming. And something called “monogamy”.
We “naked” cavefolk aren’t the only ones skeptical. It isn’t long before Dandelion’s proselytizing is interrupted by Chicken Feathers, an old hunter-gatherer friend of Rocky’s, played by Nic Sommerfeld at their most obnoxiously bro-tastic. Apparently, Chicken Feathers is some kind of seer, because they’re keen to point out that the somewhat spineless Rocky isn’t really into Dandelion’s air-conditioned good life. They can also see that taking the Agriculture road will inevitably lead to something called “climate change” and more trash than the planet can handle.
But the future of the species isn’t for these folks to decide. I won’t say who does, but it does make me curious as to whether multiple versions of the script were written to account for various outcomes. In the meantime, we’re privy to Dandelion explaining why naked cavefolk need a 10-year life plan, a slideshow that opens with an American Gothic nod, and PBR-swilling tiger explaining that the only thing keeping him calm is a steady food supply.
The ideas of Caveman Play are interesting (Is the advancement of humanity – which includes curing diseases – worth the unchecked damage left behind?) and the execution is mostly entertaining (particularly with the audience interaction). Using Rocky as the avatar for the ideological war between the progressive Dandelion and the back-to-Earth Chicken Feathers is an especially effective touch, with neither of them being incontrovertibly “right” or “wrong”. They’re merely personifications for a world that insists there’s no such thing as a “moderate”.
The problem is with the show’s pacing. Despite running nearly an hour, director Weston Scott adds in more “air” than necessary. This occasionally results in a loss of steam, which you never want in a real-time, one-act/one-scene show. The show begins with Rossoukh-as-Dandelion entering with the sort of peppy energy that lots of people find scary (possibly even Rocky), and that’s the sort of tension that should be kept all through the show to match the humor and sadness of Reich’s script.
And it’s clear a level of care went into the hour-of-so of this show. In addition to the aforementioned Naughton set (which also includes a camp fire), scenes like Dandelion’s sermonizing and Chicken Feathers’ predictions are accented by Maxx Kurzunski’s lights and Rachel Silverman’s sounds. The Flintsones-style anachronism is probably best illustrated through Brooke Jennings’ costumes, which adorn Dandelion in leathers like a fashionable cavegirl/country gal. She similarly dresses Rocky in Jeremiah Johnson pelt and Chicken Feathers in hunter furs and, well, chicken feathers. (Doug is a tiger in a tie – what more need be said?) And I don’t know how many garage sales Marisa Ramos had to attend to find that old slide machine, but its mere presence is worth a chuckle. (The slideshow itself, along with a short film of Dandelion and Rocky’s year of monogamy, were put together Lorenzo Fernandez-Kopec of LMK Media.)
Caveman Play works best as a simultaneous celebration and condemnation of human progress over the millennia. In a city where “progressive” outsiders have made disruption their go-to state (and their native neighbors have paid the highest price, literally and figuratively), it provides an interesting funhouse mirror effect, if not a lot of character depth. Where it stumbles is when its farcical elements becomes far too hypnotized by their own navel-gazing. Rapid advancement may be Chicken Feathers’ biggest fear, but a touch more of it would keep this play appropriately on its toes.
Caveman Play is scheduled to run until the 20th of July at Z Space’s Z Below in San Francisco.
The runs just over one hour with no intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.