Language Is More Dangerous Than Fire

By on 25 June, 2016 in Art, Fun, Kate and Stephen with 2 Comments

I once knew a woman who wanted to get a tattoo of a strange word on her wrist. The word?

“Kimota!”

The exclamation point is mandatory, because it’s the kind of word that is exclaimed in an old-fashioned comic book called “Marvelman.” The word, when uttered, caused a young journalist named Micky Moran to transform into a super hero called Marvelman, later re-named Miracleman due to some legal battle of some kind. And what does it mean? It’s the word “atomic,” spelled backwards … sort of.

The important thing here is not that the character was an attempt to capitalize on the budding national interest in nuclear power in the 1950s, nor the fact that the character is sort of a shamless rip-off of the concept of young Billy Batson saying “Shazam” to turn into Captain Marvel. The important thing is that my friend was obsessed with the transformative power of a single word: a verbal utterance that could convert a puny mortal into a spandex-clad god.

I thought about this metamorphic quality of language when I saw the new play at Cloverdale Playhouse last week. “Strip Talk on the Boulevard” was a product of the Playhouse’s “Page to Stage” program, in which scripts are submitted, evaluated, and then (if selected) are taken through the entire theatrical creative process, ending with production.

Donna Spector submitted the play to the 2015 version of the script writing contest, and her funny and insightful story is also about the transforming power of language.

Johnny Veres as Raw Sex and Sarah Worley as Marty

Johnny Veres as Raw Sex and Sarah Worley as Marty (Photo: Frank C. Williams)

Our previous post on MML about this production was a preview of the play designed to get you to want to go see it. If you’re reading this on the day that it’s posted, you still have time to catch it before it closes on Sunday (June 26). But if you’ve missed it, know that it’s a powerful play, and you should absolutely make extraordinary efforts to see the next “Page to Stage” show at the Playhouse.

The play is set entirely in a drugstore on a somewhat seedy section of Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles. The shop is a refuge from the summer heat, and the neon bustle and tourist hustle of the ecosystem near the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It opens with two strangers getting acquainted, and moves through a well-crafted and credible exploration of what it means to be amid transition. Marty (Sarah Worley) is between jobs, between relationships, and her future is an impenetrable fog bank. She meets Sally (Sarah Adkins), an employee at the quirky drug store, and their narratives begin to merge. Adkins is bombastic, and a talented physical performer, dancing and moving across the stage effortlessly. Worley’s performance evolves, as Marty’s barriers erode, and she brings an earnest edge to a character who is seeking a new identity.

The striking part of the play is not necessarily watching two strangers find unexpected common ground, but has more to do with the strange universe of the drug store and the Boulevard. Johnny Veres memorably plays a verbose guitarist named Raw Sex, who literally sells words to denizens of the Boulevard. He captures the disaffected faux-cool of a street philosopher, while offering a glimpse into the darker places where swagger and wordplay uncomfortably bump up against the material world. Flirtatious banter’s limits are the landmines on Raw Sex’s margins. The emergence of Marty from her frumpy English teacher’s shell is made beautiful by the ongoing and overt acknowledgment of the role of language in our lives and as a driver in our various evolutions.

Raw Sex literally trades words for money, and the word-selling syndicate seems like a bizarre dimension to the play, but the discussions of value are hammered home when Marty says, “Language is more dangerous than fire, and its relationship to the world of the senses is both infinitely flexible and precarious. You mustn’t throw your words around carelessly.”

This is the power of “Kimota!” and “Shazam!” and the beautiful song that Veres sings as Raw Sex, in which he encourages an application of this simple principle, not necessarily to turn into a superhero, but just to make it through our challenging lives. “Living in darkness can feel so alone,” he sings. “Don’t hide your light.”

We’re all thinking about transforming our unhappiness into light. And no matter our levels of educational achievement, we’ve all got words with which to do it. “Strip Talk” reminds us of the power of words, and also of the power of theater to connect us, through performance, to our own abilities.

Another highlight of the is the set design, where the drug store captures the chintzy nature of Christmas decorations in June, the virtue of low-brow whimsy contrasting against the florid prose being dispensed. It’s like watching people debate Thoreau or Marquez in the aisle of a Wal-Mart. And when things devolve into dueling feminist representations of the Adam and Eve creation story? You really get a sense of the high stakes of literary interpretation.

It’s great to have local theater where a hot play from a national celebrity playwright like Neil Simon or Christopher Durang is performed. We absolutely need those kinds of modern theater to compliment our already-existing set of local professional Shakespeare options. But “Strip Talk on the Boulevard” is something else altogether. It’s a “soup to nuts” demonstration of how to turn a fresh script into a “world premier,” complete with costumes, sets, design, and all of the other moving parts that make live theater special. If you can go see it before it leaves, I recommend it. It runs tonight and tomorrow. Tickets can be purchased here.

Sarah Thornton, the artistic director at Cloverdale Playhouse, did a great job directing “Vanya, Sonia, Sasha and Spike” back in March, and her steady hand shows through here as well. I remain excited to see what the Playhouse has in store for us next.

Stephen Stetson is a Midtown resident with two cats, a dog, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure.

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  1. Anonymous says:

    You fail to include the college student whose appearance, although brief, resulted in Marty’s acknowledgment of her purpose in life as an educator . His character was realistic, honest and enjoyable!

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