3.5 out of 4 Stars
The Adventures of Spirit Force Five is likely the most idiotic, pointless, and irrelevant play you will see this summer. And that, I’m guessing, is precisely the compliment The Factory Theater was after when they decided to produce Jill Oliver’s debut play, an hour-long piece of marvelously executed inanity.
Oliver’s script both pays homage to and burlesques the televised images of heroism beamed into the bleary, Saturday-morning eyes of children reared in the 90’s. With bowls of Lucky Charms in hand, the millennial generation sat raptly as we ingested a flood of programming made for impressionable minds. It dramatized again and again that ancient, primordial confrontation of good versus evil. Lacking a unifying, cultural narrative—Bibles, Homeric Epics, or Vedas—these serial epics became for us a constellation of micro-mythologies through which we oriented ourselves in the world. Like the inspirational posters that hung in our cafeterias Monday through Friday, these narratives espoused teamwork, perseverance, and positivity as indispensable tools for success. Yet these shows also gave us our first encounter with true villainy—those avatars of an oversimplified evil that you just wanted to punch in the face. Inevitably, the world depended on a cadre of unexceptional youths like us. And, inevitably, they were poised to defeat the bad guys if only they could harness their individual talents and learn to cooperate for the greater good.
The plot of Spirit Force Five is a dizzying pastiche that gathers together all the contradictory worlds that more or less tell this same story: Power Rangers, Narnia/Lord of the Rings, and that teen cheerleading movie, Bring It On. As you can probably guess, the plot's a doozy. One of those typical Objects of Immense Power has gone missing. It could have been a ring or a Pandoric box, but in this case it’s an evil spirit stick that possesses its handler, creates portals, and just spreads apocalyptic assholery all around. Armed with lots of pep, three cheerleaders (played by Carmen Molina, Stephanie Shum, and Abby Blankenship) are called upon to squash out the bad “conquer the universe” juju coming from Mauron’s (Elise Marie Davis) overpowered “vag.” (Seriously, it does Vader chokes, summons visions of her enemies’ whereabouts, and even...electrocutes them?) After adopting into their midst the troupe-less Boy Scout, Garin (Joshua Servantez), they set off to save Lametown and the parallel universe of Lej. But first they must secure the stick from Mauron’s clutches, “put it in” Lametown’s talking Spirit Tree (just me, or was Jill Frederickson’s puppet lowkey horny?), and rescue Coach K (Kevin Alves) in time for State. Whew!
Of course, we all know how it will end. We’re supposed to. Despite the genre’s convention of excessive world-building, the myth we’ve heard a thousand times reduces to a simple conclusion: the good always wins. Oliver pokes at this predictable plot with her own postmodern stick. Finding its naïve optimism a bit hollow, she affectionately overstuffs it with tropes, clichés, and allusions from nearly every cultural artefact of the 90’s. Titanic, Star Wars, The Goonies, The Princess Bride, and Rocky (think: overused training montage) each get their wink. All of this is done with a tongue-in-cheek metatheatricality, as when Coach K finally goes toe-to-toe with Mauron and she saucily quips, “I was surprised you didn’t find me upstage.” Registering the stupidity of the statement given our seating arrangement, Coach K retorts with heroic cunning: “Ha! That’s because we’re in the round!”
Confident of the integrity of this inane material, Spenser Davis’ crisp direction hits all the set-ups and punchlines at a breathless pace and with infallible timing. His cascade of tableaus evokes all the graphic punchiness we expect from cartoons and comic books. Not a single extraneous movement undermines his tightly woven tapestry of Gen Y iconography. Mauron’s oafish henchmen, the Goobers, wobble around like Oz’s flying monkeys; Lametown citizens sprinting away from danger first wind-up like Wily Coyote; a Goober that’s been cheer-kicked in the gut hobbles offstage with the howls of Youtube’s infamous Grape Lady. Silliness aside, Davis' cast of veritable clowns maintain their characters’ stakes with the overwrought posturing and affectedness of melodrama—that is, until their epic-seriousness is undercut by a pun, malapropism, or totally “failed” theater trick (like an actor casually tossing out confetti to signify a spurt of blood). Is the whole thing oversaturated with clever self-referentiality and kitsch? Yup. Is it also in step with the humor of millennial memedom? Absolutely. And Oliver’s ridiculous musical choreography and the ultra-fake fight choreography from Maureen Yasko and Chris Smith ensure that nearly every physical sequence yields a gif-able moment.
Really, it’s difficult to single out stellar performances because the entire troupe rides the same whacky wavelength with equal skill and glee. They’re just really damn funny. Design, too, is great from top to bottom. The sound design and original music from Eric Backus (also co-written by Oliver) always erupts unexpectedly, and the corniness of a super-positive rap can seamlessly morph into an “Eye of the Tiger” anthem (props to Laura McKenzie’s musical direction). Claire Sangster’s lights conjure the muddy greens of a bog, soaks a slo-mo fist-fight in alarum-red, and cast the shadowy greys of Lady Mauron’s steely chamber. Devon Green’s props are alternatively tacky and impressive: compare the lame waterfall made of cheap blue streamers and Mauron’s faithfully realized throne (complete with gynecological stirrups). Rachel Sypniewski's costuming most clearly echoes this ambivalence toward the tasteless and the well-made. Mauron’s witchy black bustier and lace make her seem a credible opponent. Yet the Smurf-esque trio of Lametown just throw on grey hoodies and some goggles, and they’re suddenly the blubbering Goobers. The visual dissonance between the lazy (*ah-hem*…efficient) costume change and the carefully designed villain so aptly encapsulates my generation’s contradictions. We freely pendulate between sincerity and glib irony.
It is this conflict between our sentimentality and cynicism that forms the production’s metajoke, if you will. The Adventures of Spirit Force Five at once participates in today’s prolific nostalgia industry, but then makes us laugh at ourselves when we buy into it. Even if we know them to be passé, we still ache for some truth in those hopeful depictions of collective action. Disillusioned, however, we find ourselves incapable of believing in what we want to believe in. We've come to recognize that people are unreliable and that happy endings are never guaranteed. We're “woke” to the subtler and more pernicious realities of a harsh job market, political callousness, environmental violence, and structural inequities. Yet as the play inverts, perverts, feminizes, and displaces the sign-universe of our childhood fantasies, it teases us for our disenchantment as much as for our idealism.
But then again, maybe Davis and Oliver are right in saying they’ve just made an hour of pure, escapist fun.
The Adventures of Spirit Force Five runs July 6th-August 11th. It plays Friday and Saturday at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm. Ticket prices are $18 for students and seniors and $25 for general admission. Tickets may be purchased through the Box Office by calling 866-811-4111 or by visiting TheFactoryTheater.com.