“The Brain from Planet X” delivers plenty of kitsch
By Christian Carvajal
It took Susan Sontag over six thousand words to describe “camp,” so I probably shouldn’t even try. She viewed it as a “disengaged, depoliticized” aesthetic “sensibility” skewed toward “artifice and exaggeration,” with a “spirit of extravagance” and “glorification of [exaggerated] ‘character.'” Even in 1964, she recognized that homosexuals “constitute the vanguard – and most articulate audience – of Camp,” and that it often includes purposely “bad art or kitsch.” So I think I’m in good company when I suggest the following oversimplification: Camp = kitsch + gay.
And boy, howdy, there are plenty of each in Theater Artists Olympia’s (TAO’s) production of The Brain from Planet X, a musical so campy it makes Glee look like the Expendables trailer.
Have you seen Little Shop of Horrors? How about The Rocky Horror Show, or any of the grade-Z drive-in movies that inspired it? Then you’ve seen pretty much everything in Brain, which offers an invasion of gaylien Body Snatchers who would giggle at the word “snatcher.” That’s not necessarily bad, at least not bad for camp; after all, we know it’s a spoof going in. Mystery Science Theater 3000 proved ingenious people can, in fact, find clever ways to spoof idiotic sci-fi movies; it’s a shame the jokes in Brain are usually more chuckles than laugh lines. This is the kind of comedy your homophobic grandma might describe as risqué, and your mom might describe as cute. (I know, as I saw it with my mom and she called it cute.) It’s not as much fun as Little Shop, nor are Bruce Kimmel’s lyrics as witty as Howard Ashman’s, but it’s certainly catchy and manages real irony in “World of Tomorrow,” this show’s “Somewhere That’s Green.”
TAO’s production of Brain boasts the same director, Josh Anderson (also its keyboardist), and much of the same cast and crew as last season’s Reefer Madness. I preferred that show, but I’ve noticed real growth in several of TAO’s regular performers in only a year. Heather Christopher in particular has found new ways to shade presentational characters; her nod toward Lucille Ball tips into Joan Crawford territory when X-traterrestrials zap her with a female empowerment gun. Russ Holm adds to his roster of continuously funny characters with a near-impersonation of Pat Buttram, and Amy Shephard is a double-espresso, dancing dynamo. Paul Purvine and Lauren O’Neill are right in their wheelhouses as sex-starved Space Invaders. Rob Taylor makes an effective Rod Serling stand-in.
The only questionable costuming is Taylor’s had-to-be-intentional Pee Wee Herman getup. In a role written for a butch male, Louise Morgan spills charmingly out of her own costume as the assistant to one-star General Mills. Yeah, it’s that kind of show. Is there a Colonel Sanders reference? You bet! Will the Brain’s hypertrophic noggin resemble a coral reef, or two scoops of raspberry sherbet? Why not both?
As for singin’ and steppin’, it’s too bad the performers weren’t miked; they had a tough time competing with the band and (bonus points) a real theremin. A few soloists flailed at occasional keys in Thursday’s preview, but the chorus articulated well throughout and braved a rousing dance ensemble, the “Brain Tap.”
Taken for what it is, The Brain from Planet X is an entertaining trifle, but I encourage TAO to produce, cast and act farther outside its comfort zone. TAO bills itself as Oly’s edgiest theatre company, but in 2010, a campy poke at late-1950s suburban mores feels safe as houses.