REVIEW: Ozma and Harriet (Tympanic Theatre)

Grab remote control. Change channel.

 

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Tympanic Theatre Company presents
 
Ozma and Harriet
 
Written by Daniel Caffrey
Directed by
Timothy Bambara
the side project theatre, 1439 W. Jarvis, Chicago (map)
through April 18th (more info)

reviewed by Ian Epstein 

Imagine a young and well-heeled family of three.  Mom is named Harriet (Cara Olansky), and she stays at home and cares for the kid, Ozma (Christopher Acevedo), while Dad, named Frank (Paul E. Martinez) dons his pristine white lab coat with determination and trots off to work, where he is perhaps one of the most respected men in the field of robotics or some similar field. Sounds idyllic enough, right?

ozma and harriet But this child is one of Dad’s lab projects and because he is an android in an early stage of development, Ozma spends most of the day in a "suspended state" (i.e. napping) leaving Mom with little to do.  And since Dad is a workaholic scientist on an analytic diet of restricted emotions, the sex is infrequent if at all. So Harriet futzes in sexual frustration and she paces back and forth and watches a lot of early 90s TV from the comfort of her couch while her marriage slowly starts to crumble.

When her boredom reaches a tipping point, she traipses over to where Ozma naps and pulls our beta-Android friend from his daydreams of electric sheep for a little light conversation and some company bathing in the educative glow of the early 90s sitcom. Educative because Ozma, though he already knows a lot, is still in the knowledge acquisition phase.  Maybe they bump once in the dark but before long there’s some inter-mechanical, borderline incest that everyone has to process as things begin to unwind.

Meanwhile, in the background of it all there’s a silent, screwball chorus of hipster-caveman-zombies who double as grips and triple as the sitcom production team as well as an off-tempo laugh track suffering from a high-pitched case of occasional hysteria.  Ozma and Harriet is at it’s best during these surreal moments when these folks, stationed in every crevice of side project’s tiny space, erupt into their fits of forced and frantic laughter, pop up from behind a couch with a manic smile, or interfere in some other way with the low-stakes, almost-incest farce playing out on stage.

Ozma and Harriet builds all of this up slowly over the course of the first act and the emotionally torqued relationship between Ozma, Harriet, and Frank helps tremendously to understand the opening moments where Ozma politely shuffles around the edges of a sexual encounter with a down-to-business, matter-of-fact call girl named Sandra (Jamie Bragg) who delivers, next to the chorus, the most well-attuned performance. Much of the second act is spent watching what happens when the ball rolls down the hill and everything goes to shit. 

26411_410308615475_185907470475_5377426_3058531_n Sitcom references and structural sitcom-mimicry heavily saturate the play, which feels like a farce trapped in the same room as the bad parts of a soap opera.  Scenes are presented with too much deference to reality – a directorial choice that makes them feel too sincerely acted (or perhaps not acted with enough of that special manic quality that makes a farce so fun to watch). The chorus works wonderfully because their silliness is always energetic, always so far beyond the real that we’ve no choice but to laugh out of surprise as well. Comparatively, Harriet and Ozma and Frank all feel a little indecisive. 

An audience needs to know when to laugh or cower, when to cry or scream in response to robot sex, murder, and, yes, the dissolution of a failed marriage.  Sure, it’s light-hearted fun – but without choices strong enough either to indicate this or make the audience forget all about it and imagine themselves within the mis-wired mind of an android, Ozma and Harriet teeters precariously on the edge of even being theater.

 
Rating:
 

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