By John Quinn
In preparing the nominations for the Wilde Awards I was struck by the number of “dark comedies” presented this season. One of the darkest – as in “bear’s-belly-at-midnight-in-the-dark-of-the-moon” dark – is “Endangered,” premiering at Planet Ant Theatre. It’s also a wicked piece of satire.
Local (resident of the “pseudo-suburb” of Redford) playwright Sean Paraventi and I probably find ourselves in the same predicament. We’re paying for some 150-odd channels of cable TV and there’s not a damn thing worth watching. In lieu of acceptable entertainment, he writes plays and I criticize them. You didn’t think we’re in it for the money, did you? Others, though, might take more aggressive measures to improve the landscape of the “vast wasteland.”
Hapless tree-hugger turned eco-terrorist Joe (Josh Campos) arrives at the headquarters of The American Educational Channel. Driven by ratings, what was once a citadel of quality wildlife and ecological documentaries has turned to the dark side. It’s now a trash bin of “reality” shows; Joe wants “nature” back. As fate would have it, in the office of the vice president for programming he meets Leigh (Kristen Wagner), mother of 20 and the star of the channel’s top-rated show. When VP Arnold Swenson (Dan Jaroslaw) and his executive assistant Brad (Eric Niece) arrive, Joe draws a gun and takes the trio hostage. Unfortunately, the increasingly manic Joe is not a man with a plan. He begins to rely on suggestions from his captives for his next step – how to get his message heard.
Played in one act of three scenes, “Endangered” is note-worthy for the self-revelations of its characters. Brad the assistant wants out of television; Arnie hates his own programming and would restore the channel to respectability if he could. Most remarkable, though, are Leigh’s revelations that she refuses to face. We see Leigh and Joe as champions of diametrically opposed forces struggling for the future. Leigh and her brood are squandering the limited resources Joe is determined to preserve.
As part of the prize of “BoxFest Detroit,” the annual theater showcase for women directors, Andrea Scobie received an invitation to direct a show in the Planet Ant Late Night Series. “Endangered” is the happy result. A quartet of actors geared like a Rolex, coupled with effective pacing enables a lot of theater in less than an hour. What’s striking is how “real” it all seems. Planet Ant is a very intimate performance space, and the action is practically in the audience’s laps. Joe’s gun is obviously plastic – considering how often Campos bangs it on his forehead the poor guy would be bruised if not unconscious were it metal – but we never doubt Joe is deadly. Even for someone who readily suspends disbelief – me – focus on character makes for a very natural experience.
Now Jeremiah will rant. Paraventi is on target when he writes that bad television is not the disease; it’s a symptom. The common culture is decadent, and standards are falling everywhere from education to entertainment. Some men, in fact, are indiscreet enough to post naughty photos on the Internet without understanding the repercussions of third-party file sharing sites. What was he THINKING! Society, it seems, no longer cares what it watches or how badly humanity’s stewardship of the Earth has become. Every “Jersey Shore,” every “John and Kate Plus Eight” numbs the brain and sours the soul. But the old saw says “People generally get the government they deserve.” I guess that goes for TV, too. I’m glad I have an alternative.
A Late Night Show at Planet Ant Theatre, 2357 Caniff Ave., Hamtramck. Friday-Saturday through June 18. $10. 313-365-4948. http://www.planetant.com