July 24, 2007

Who’s yer daddy?

Big Oil: Castmembers (l-r) Shaun Kenney, Leah Roberts, Tad Chitwood, Erin Crites and Ben Owens bring Finnigan Productions’ controversial “My Daddy’s Name is Big Oil” to life on the Actors Theatre stage.Brian Walker, the Louisville playwright and founder of Finnigan Productions, is hell-bent on provoking audiences with socially relevant works. His last work, “Great American Sex Play,” explored the nature of labeling individuals along a continuum between homosexuality to heterosexuality. The contention was that basically humans are bisexual. The play broke the well-established taboo against showing simulated sex acts onstage.In “My Daddy’s Name is Big Oil,” Walker again examines sexuality, but in the context of power. As in “Sex Play,” Walker points out that robots are in control. But here, you cannot tell who is a robot and who is human. While the play deals with serious matters (finding alternatives to oil addiction), “Big Oil” is nevertheless quite funny. With fine-tuning, it could be even better.The caliber of acting here is outstanding. Tad Chitwood gives the performance of his life as the nameless Big Oil man who pulls everyone’s strings. He really sinks his teeth into his role as he effortlessly spews several venomous lines. “Then sign, before I show you what the bottom end of a gang-bang looks like,” he says to the hapless job applicant, John Alternative (Ben Owens). John apparently has no choice but to sign the employment contract and make tons of money in the oil industry. His last name simply won’t do, and it becomes “Petroleum.”Following his brainwashing, John and his android guide, Miranda MiddleEast (Erin Crites), accept missions to eradicate liberal propaganda. Crites succeeds in portraying an emotionless android with authority and poise.In this world, women must carry signs at all times. Big Oil’s wife has one that reads “I Am A Troll.” These labels are to help men understand what type of woman they are dealing with. The message here is that sexism is much more acceptable than other types of bigotry. No one bats an eye when women are labeled. Yet the public begins to take note when other groups are subjected to this Nazi-like law.As Mr. President, Ted Lesley is as close to the real thing as you can imagine. John sucks up to him, saying, “I live, eat and breathe your United States of America, sir!” Lesley, as Mr. President, mocks John to his clueless wife, “Mine! Did you hear that, Mrs.? He thinks America’s mine!”Instead of a Greek chorus, Walker gives us a “Corn Chorus,” six characters wearing golden half-masks. They chant and pound their feet rhythmically to Delilah Smyth’s choreography while protesting the “plight of the polar bear,” lost at sea due to global warming. Two ionic columns flank the sides of a raised stage, designed by Josh Peters. Two ramps come off the stage in a sort of inverted “V” shape resembling a pair of spread legs. They symbolize the silent majority who accept a fine reaming from Big Oil and Big Government. Two mirrors line the back wall, so the audience can glimpse themselves, and see what the characters are doing behind their backs. Dying cornstalks line the aisles.The blatant simulated fellatio and crude dialogue (which would land a real Big Oil man in a sexual harassment lawsuit) didn’t faze me. But Walker’s ham-handed message — Conservatives: Bad. Liberals: Good. — got my dander up. Walker has a lot of potential, and he’s well versed in classical Greek theater and mythology. Director Christopher Hartman notes that Walker “barbs Big Oil” in the “spirit of Aristophanes,” whose “Acharnians” skewered Athenian politicians and had a strong anti-war stance. Likewise, Walker takes jabs at incumbent politicians and war in general.But those were simpler times. In ancient Greece, up to 14,000 people attended a show. There were no microphones. The message had to be clear and simple. Today’s audiences are more sophisticated than the hoi polloi in 5th century Athens and don’t need to be hammered over the head with a political message. (We also don’t need a director who sits in the audience and laughs uproariously and serves as a “clacker” to lead the audience to applaud.)Despite these shortcomings, Walker succeeds in provoking the audience and starting a conversation. I wanted to shout, “It’s not as simple as substituting corn for oil!” Many studies indicate that biofuel production is inefficient compared with producing gasoline and costs more. Switching to biofuels would likely raise food costs and make less of the crop available to feed humans and stock animals. One begins to wonder whether Walker, who preaches corn as our savior, is simply naïve, or a shill for Big Biofuel. But if the play’s character Mrs. Scientist is correct that “whole continents are becoming deserts,” then none of these arguments will amount to a hill of beans anyway.My Daddy’s Name is Big OilStarring Tad Chitwood, Ben Owens, Leah Roberts, Erin Crites, Ted Lesley and Briana Clemerson. Directed by Christopher Hartman. Written by Brian D. Walker. Presented by Finnigan Productions. Continues July 26-28 at Actors Theatre. For tickets, call 584-1205.