The Big Black Box/Cabin Fever (October 20-November 6, 2005)

TAO weaves creepy, comical tales well

by ALEC CLAYTON
Originally published in The Tacoma News Tribune

Theater Artists Olympia goes by the acronym TAO, which is pronounced “dow” as in Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. TAO is a theater company that says it is dedicated to “materials that are thematically more provocative, and interpretations of classics more experimental than generally found in the Olympia area.”

Last summer it put on a stylish and gutsy production of “Macbeth” at Olympia Little Theatre. Now it is offering two experimental comedy-horror plays at the tiny Midnight Sun Performance Space in downtown Olympia. Billed as “Two Comedies of Malice for the Halloween Season,” the brief one-and two-act plays are “The Big Black Box” by Cleve Haubold and “Cabin Fever” by Joan Shenkar.

“The Black Box” is the comically absurd tale of a man who crosses the path of a big black box. Arnold (Dennis Worrell) jauntily walks down the street on the way to his bus stop, brandishing an umbrella, wearing a vested suit and sporting a fancy pocket watch on a chain.

He is pulled up short when a large black box on the sidewalk speaks to him. He’s never heard a box speak before, so he stops out of curiosity – not the most brilliant move he has ever made, because the box not only speaks, but also it is conniving, manipulative and malevolent. And what ensues between Arnold and the box is harrowingly funny, like an episode of the old “Twilight Zone” as enacted by Monty Python.

Worrell is funny, and Dennis Rolly as the voice of the box is even funnier. Worrell is a young actor who hasn’t been on stage since high school in the late ’80s and early ’90s, but he looks like a seasoned professional in this performance. His maturity as a performer is likely due to an equal amount of natural ability and excellent work from director Christopher Cantrell (an outstanding Macbeth at OLT and equally outstanding as Falstaff in Lakewood Playhouse’s “Merry Wives of Windsor”).

Worrell’s comic timing is perfect as he literally and figuratively wrestles with the box.

Timing is also key to Rolly’s performance. He reacts to Worrell from offstage, creating comic setups with nothing to work with but voice inflection. That’s a tough assignment for any actor, but Rolly is no newcomer to the stage. I first saw him more than a decade ago as King Lear in a Washington Shakespeare production. Since then, he has been in numerous shows with Harlequin, OLT and Abbey Players. His one-person show “Shylock” was a hit in the Seattle Fringe Festival.

Rolly also stars in the second play, “Cabin Fever,” alongside two other stage veterans, Elizabeth Lord and Pug Bujeaud.

“Cabin Fever” is an actor’s delight – the kind of play that lets them bring out all their chops and play them to the hilt. And sitting up close in the small black-box performance space, audience members can easily see that Rolly, Lord and Bujeaud are having the time of their lives.

Don’t confuse “Cabin Fever” with the 2002 horror film of the same name in which several people are trapped in the woods and are methodically killed off by a horrifying flesh-eating virus. This is much more horrifying than that. And funnier.

Lord, Bujeaud and Rolly are a trio of old-timers sitting on the porch of a rundown mountain cabin, slowly but surely going crazy with cabin fever. There are too many deliciously evil turns to the plot for me to outline what happens, but suffice it to say the audience takes away three important lessons: Keep a close eye on the people you think you know; if it’s your turn to plant the garden, be sure you do it; and lastly, do not ever go anywhere near Mountain County, wherever that may be.

The use of repetition in the script worked like some kind of macabre poetry.

The set, designed by Cantrell, is the porch of a cabin with great gaps between boards and curtains that are nothing but scraps of cloth, and three old rocking chairs that don’t look safe to sit on. This set might be a trifle overdone, but it’s Halloween, after all. The costumes (no costume designer listed) are also slightly overdone, but wonderfully so.

This trio of actors is so scraggly and dirty that a farmer would hesitate to let them stay in his barn for fear they’d desecrate the animals. They take every cliché about redneck mountaineers and stretch them to the outer limits of comic hyperbole. How they keep from breaking down at their own antics I’ll never know.

The theater was almost empty opening night, which means that a whole lot of people are missing out on a whole lot of fun.