Getting Off

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Watching Dramatic Masturbation, a new play from Barestage Productions, is like listening to a professor - you know, one of those really smart-ass types - lecture to you in that manner that is really clever but not exactly really theatrical. The professor speaks with poise and intelligence but constantly discredits his form, his intelligence, and even the fact that he's lecturing. All to the point that makes you smile and at the same time sigh with tedium.

That's this play - terrible in its brilliance and brilliant in its terribleness.

Written by Greg Emetaz and directed by Jonathan Whittle-Utter, both UC Berkeley students, Dramatic Masturbation takes its audience by the intellectual throat and refuses to let go. In it, reality and satire are mimicked and satirized. You miss a self-reference or an allusion to the greats of modernity - Becket, Shepard, etc. - and you're doomed. All of this is done in the hopes of making post-modernism "fun" (it explicitly says it wants to - that's post-modernism for you).

The one-act, which opened last Friday at the Choral Rehearsal Hall in the Cesar Chavez Student Center, attempts to tell the story, or act like it is telling the story, of six characters attempting to both escape from and appease their author.

Let it be clear: this play is no way about anything sexual as it's title suggests (it has no time to deal with such a triviality). With no looking back, Dramatic Masturbation weaves in and out of the audience and on to several different scenes, from a high school drama club's play reading to a musical theatre interlude - all the while describing what it's doing as it does it.

The play is balanced by Damon the Interpreter (not "Narrator," because, as Damon says so, this would imply he is telling a story), who serves as the audience's ambassador and analyst to the insane world of Emetaz's characters. One character, Bob, can't seem to shake the idea that everyone in the play shouldn't break character and shouldn't be crossing that point-of-no-return, the "fourth wall." By the end, Damon (played to smart-ass perfection by Chris Pine) has his tables of control turned upon him as Bob (Brendan Wolfe, smart and well-refrained) becomes the closest thing to an author that the characters will ever meet.

On the whole, this play is pretentious, but it knows it is pretentious, and it knows it knows it is pretentious, and, well, the cyclical nature of "self-referentiality" (as the characters describe it) is enough to make one's head reel. It appears to say: You will find this funny! You will not find this funny! And you will find that funny precisely because we're telling you IT IS NOT FUNNY! By less than a third of the way into the play, the audience must elect to just throw any sense of coherence out the window and enjoy the play for its comedics, which are plentiful.

At one point in the play's many moments of deliberate crossing of the "fourth wall," two of the characters sit in the audience and become theater critics "feeling like an intermission" at the play which we are witnessing. (This setup is dangerous if there are real critics in the house, because, honestly, one might not be able to help but empathize.) One of actors-turned-critics bemoans the writing: "It's not beautiful, it's not realistic, it's just mediocre." Well, the former two may be true, but the latter is not - at least not entirely. In truth, the writing is generally quite intelligent, if not sometimes brilliant.

But the fact that Emetaz so freely chooses to critique his own writing as he writes it speaks to a certain amount of patting oneself on the back, as if he writes in complaints of his work in his work with the vague hope that the audience members sitting next to the actors will turn and say: "No, it really is good, missy!" This critic certainly wouldn't, but that constant self-deprecation, in a way, discounts the portions of writing that really are good.

Still, Dramatic Masturbation's saving grace is its staging and performers. Whittle-Utter's actors know what they're doing, and he knows how to make them do it. The incomprehensible moments are brief enough so as to not get bothersome. And the much better moments are milked for all their worth. It is touching and yet not clear exactly why Kathe (a talented Shelly Morzov) begins to tell a story to two actors playing her children that sounds exactly like the beginning of the play itself. This is the same Kathe who a moment before was a budding playwright in a high school drama club, reading her new play, "Theatrical Masturbation," which dangerously sounds, again, like the beginning of the play we are seeing.

And so goes Dramatic Masturbation, swirling to its finish at the expense of the audience's understanding. So much so that the audience at opening night was scared to leave when it was over out of fear that the play might start up again. (The audience finally cleared when the stage manager - the real stage manager - came out and turned on the houselights herself.) The curtain call, when each of the characters re-introduce themselves and say who they are ("I was Damon; the interpreter.") was telling of the fact that the true star was not on stage. Bob, the actual interpreter, calls himself "nobody." It is then that this play's title makes unperfect sense. Dramatic Masturbation is the author pleasing himself, nothing more. It is Emetaz's dramatic masturbation, which doesn't exactly mean it gets the audience off.

Dramatic Masturbation is one of those experiences that can be a pleasant one or a dreadful one, depending, perhaps, on your mood. When I saw it I left smiling, mildly amused and not clearly knowing why. But it would be safe to assume that the man sitting in front of me - who held his head in his hands towards the end and left at the first indication that the play ended (which it hadn't) - did not.

I guess his was a premature dramatic, uh, ejection.


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