What is love? Thatís the ultimate question, and the subject of John Cruncletonís The Blue Whale of Catoosa, performed this weekend and next at the Nightingale Theater, 1416 E. Fourth St.
But don't expect a straight answer from Cruncleton. His epic (three-and-a-half hours) sci-fi fantasy musical meanders around the question, veering off into subjects of sex and the purpose of being.
The play stars local jazz vocalist Annie Ellicott as Nancy Maria Chevrolet, one of the last humans left in the galaxy -- the rest of the species became extinct about a thousand years ago -- on a quest to visit the seven remaining relics on Earth. She's investigated them all, with the exception of one -- the Blue Whale of Catoosa.
Her extraterrestrial guides, whom she calls Baba, and the musical spaceboys, who, though confined to their ship, profess their love for her, first send her to Lunacity, the moon's capital, to learn about carnality, before beaming her down to Earth.
At Lunacity, she meets a trio of harlots -- Ilsa (Sara Wilemon), Bossy (Sara Cruncleton) and Sally (Amy Page) -- and Kluge (Peter Bedgood), a creature who, despite his three-foot phallus, is profound and complicated, all of whom are determined to educate her on the subject of carnality.
On Earth, the swamp that surrounds the Blue Whale is threatened by Telly Fae (Jolianna Wright), the monster who inhabits it, and the structure itself is haunted by the ghost of a suicidal poet (Joseph Gomez), who first appears to Nancy naked and covered in plastic. She resurrects him with the help of a Pueblo Indian, Chief Wolf Robe Hunt (Chris Williams).
With the resurrected ghost, and to the disappointment of her bubble boys (the Calamities -- John Cruncleton, John Finnerty and Steve Beard -- who performed the show's original music), Nancy discovers sex, though perhaps not love.
Cruncleton employs a play within a play, acted out by forest animals, to tell the true history of the Blue Whale of Catoosa -- Hugh Davis (Andy Axewell) built it for his wife Zelta (Amy Carlin Lee) and opened it up to the public as a swimming hole before allowing it to fall into disrepair, as much a result of the nearby highway construction as anything else.
Explaining the play is nearly impossible; truly, it must be experienced. Cruncleton's writing has the uncanny ability to make you laugh while simultaneously mocking you. And though he approaches what could be some deep, complex issues, the text remains hovered over the surface of those issues, zinging the audience with the sting of truth every now and then, but mostly remaining light-hearted and fun.
Still, brevity is an issue. The last time I criticized Cruncleton for being too long-winded, I was accused of not appreciating his use of Shakespeare's five-act structure -- not by Cruncleton himself, though he may have agreed with the assertion.
But the problem isn't just one of length, it's one of restraint. Cruncleton's decision to include nearly every thought he's ever had on the subjects of love and sex only serve to muddy his play, watering down what could have been a compelling manifesto.
And it doesn't matter how good your work is if people aren't willing to stick around to finish it. A handful of people walked out of last Friday's opening performance before the curtain call.
Perhaps it would help if audiences knew what to expect. The certainties of Cruncleton's play are these: skillful and clever, though garrulous, writing; (mostly) excellent acting by an all-star cast; sophisticated music and catchy lyrics (I found myself singing them in my head the next day); surprisingly good singing; and an unswerving commitment to the product by all involved.
One shouldn't expect a traditional musical. Cruncleton calls his play a rock opera, and while I suppose that's accurate, his work is more artistic than that.
The cast and crew have committed to their show, and the acting and singing is as fine as you'd expect from any other theater. Some of my favorites from the evening were Ellicott, Bedgood, Williams, Wilemon and Lee.
And as for the issue of love, well, who knows? It's either real or it's shit, and not nearly as fun as sex, but both Nancy and the poet seem to find it in the end.
The Blue Whale of Catoosa continues Sept. 16, 17, 23 and 24 at 8pm. Tickets are $12.
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