Empire Stage's "Unleashed": Facebook Spawns Theater
It was inevitable in this age of social-media ubiquity: a play written by Facebook. The genesis of Unleashed, a so-called online social experiment conceived by local actor James Carrey, came straight from Mark Zuckerberg's little website, specifically randomly submitted lines from 26 friends that were incorporated as dialogue in the play. From that foundation, Carrey and his cast improvised a plot that would become this wacky horror-comedy, the first production from Crashbox Theatre Company at Empire Stage.
The experiment doesn't work, but an A for effort is certainly in order. The show's novel concept is never mentioned in the playbill or in a preshow announcement, but it should be — if for no other reason than it provides a rack on which to hang the show's flaws, offering some justification for the manic, disjointed proceedings that play out onstage. It's no surprise that a play with more than two dozen "contributors" fails to find a singular personality.
Carrey, who also handled the direction, design elements, and music, stars as Alain, a magazine writer whose girlfriend (Nori Tecosky) has just left their house for an extended vacation. Alain hasn't told her that, during her absence, he and his best buddy, Casey (improv comic Kaspar Blomqvist), will welcome a prostitute into their home — for strictly professional reasons, of course, as part of an investigative article about the sex business.
Unleashed, Thursdays to Saturdays at 8 p.m. through December 29 (with a 9 p.m. showtime December 22) at Empire Stage, 1140 N. Flagler Drive, Fort Lauderdale. Admission is $25 for adults, $15 for seniors and students. Call 954-678-1496, or visit empirestage.com.
For a long time, the stage — Alain's shabby living room — is shared by Carrey and Blomqvist alone, and the play sags like a deflating air bed before it can take off. Carrey is an amiable fellow, but his performance is the most wooden in the show — a result, perhaps, of the difficulty of attempting to direct oneself.
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Blomqvist, who plays Casey like a brutish man-child, fares better as the funnyman to Carrey's deadpan, but the two never spark any chemistry; they are as believable as friends as Carrey is credible as a magazine writer. There's never a sense of passion as he discusses his journalistic ambitions, just a rote recitation of lines.
Eventually, the hooker arrives, and it's Tecosky again, this time in trollop-appropriate clothing and a blinding blond wig. She's joined by her "pimp," Bryan (Shawn Burgess), whose unpimp-like activities provide more fodder for ostensible comedy. By the time Alain and Casey's guests arrive, the show has presented the inchoate stirrings of horror-movie dread, from strange sounds clattering in other rooms to what appears to be blood dripping from the ceiling. The inexplicable occurrences continue in the form of implacable growls from unseen beasts and objects that move around of their own volition. A death soon follows.
Carrey maintains a light tone throughout; aside from his own character, everyone is a screwball, and the show appears to draw inspiration more from cinema than theater — particularly broadly comic spoofs like the Scary Movie franchise and The Naked Gun series. The action is peppered by cute little ironies and reversals that undercut its own potential violence and salaciousness, and the script is heavy on cultural references, from Ghostbusters and The Smiths to Guy Fieri and Willard. To the show's credit, you never know what will happen next, but when so many of the attempted laughs fail to register, the narrative surprises are beside the point.
If Unleashed is worth seeing, it's for Clay Cartland, who contributes a ridiculously over-the-top performance as a dog medium in the second act, in the process single-handedly raising the show's pulse and inspiring better work from his colleagues. Speaking with an arch, affected accent and complementing his dialogue with dramatic hand gestures and inappropriate groping, Cartland is the show's flamboyant id, a deft comedian who best embodies the spirit of the show's title.
But it sure takes a long time to get to him.
As 2012 lurches to its end, a eulogy is in order. Another theater bit the dust this month, making it the fourth major company in Broward and Palm Beach counties to shutter in the past two seasons. As with its predecessors — Florida Stage, the Promethean, and the Caldwell — the news came as a shock, but this has been happening so often that perhaps we should begin to expect it.
Exhausted from working 42 out of 52 weekends a year and desiring to spend more time with his new wife and future child, who is expected in January, Mosaic Theatre Artistic Director Richard Jay Simon resigned, not realizing that his decision would lead to the theater's collapse. But the organization's board decided closing was the only option, leading to the cancellation of the rest of the company's season, including the highly anticipated Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. The news leaves Broward County with all of two professional theater spaces operating regularly: the Broward Stage Door and Empire Stage.
Pointing fingers seems fruitless. I wish Simon the best and understand his decision, as well as the board's, but the result is still a lot like losing a friend. Mosaic was easily one of the three best companies operating in South Florida and the tops in Broward. Its productions have been lauded in these pages for the past dozen years. To witness its downfall with such immediacy and lack of fanfare — without a proper opportunity to say goodbye — makes its abrupt departure all the more heartbreaking. To put it lightly, Mosaic will be missed.
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