Felines, woe woe woe, felines
"Cats Can See the Devil" is part puppet show, part surrealist deconstruction, part exploration of the deepest anxieties of the subconscious mind, part desperate cry for help, part blatant exploitation of beautiful actresses, and mostly very funny.
By JOSHUA TANZER
(Originally reviewed at the New York Fringe Festival in August 2003.)
For Tom X. Chao, it's a form of reverse compliment to say he has produced his most pathetic work to date. The author of the bleak satire "The Negative Energy Field" and the loser's lament "Can't Get Started" tops himself with the disturbingly funny "Cats Can See the Devil." If the Fringe Festival were ever looking for its Pirandello of patheticness, its Stoppard of self-flagellation, it need look no further.
Scoffing at structure, Chao begins his rapidly disintegrating show with puppets or, more accurately, plain paper cutouts on sticks. "Good afternoon," the playwright's baritone welcomes you. "Tonight we present a puppet show for children 'The Story of the Abstract Geometrical Shapes with No Allegorical Content.' " Hands pop up to move the puppets' heads and leaden voices recite lines in a loosely conceived magical realist sci-fi drama about space travel, Asimovian psychohistory and galactic domination.|
The puppet show as amateurish as any 6-year-old might have put on eventually incorporates such characters as Mr. Almost Empty Shampoo Bottle, Mr. Contents of My Pockets, and a cat who communes with Satan. After a while, it just seems sad embarrassingly funny, but sad. And then, suddenly, the whole thing comes crashing to a merciful halt with a surprise so hilarious that you instantly forget you had actually started to think the puppet show was for real.
From here, the actors storm off and storm back in, ponder what to do next, and rip the play that they're currently acting in a sort of "Five Actresses in Search of an Author" segment. (But not searching very hard, at that.) Some pass out their headshots in hopes of finding a better show to be in. "Cast me in something!" pleads Kim Katzberg. "I'll do anything obviously!"
As the play disintegrates, it gets closer and closer to the soul, the playwright's inner voice, in a way that a more coherent play might never do. Chao's persona well established in his previous plays and perhaps true to his actual self or perhaps a wild exaggeration has at its core the following existential question: What do you mean beautiful women don't sleep with forty-ish geeks in appreciation of their encyclopedic knowledge of Tolkien and King Crimson? When did that happen?
This kind of a premise could go horribly, horribly wrong, but somehow Chao's plays transcend self-pity and attains the more comedically fertile ground of self-ridicule. However black his own theatrical self-portraits may be (and I'm not saying anything about him here that he isn't saying about himself), he is a wickedly funny guy.
The five lithe, lovely actresses who share this bill get many of the best lines, slapping down any remaining shreds of dignity that Chao's well-flogged character may have had left in what is fast becoming, since he writes most of the dialogue and casts the actresses himself, the comedy equivalent of sadomasochism. The truth hurts, fine, but when it hurts someone else it makes us laugh.
|AUGUST 11, 2003|
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