Saturday, September 4, 2010

Reefer Madness

My latest piece for the Denver Post.

If there's any one thing I could have added to this, I would have pointed out that while it is a silly show, and while times have changed a great deal, I would remind people that the hysteria surrounding marijuana in the 20s and 30s was essentially the basis for our modern drug laws. Other reviewers have suggested that this show is hardly worth a titter, what with marijuana dispensaries sprouting up, and weed being (rightly) deemed so mild to us civilized, modern folk.

But this glosses over the fact that there are still hundreds of thousands of Americans in prison over negligible amounts of weed. There are countless people who have lost their jobs, been kicked out of school or the military or had their lives otherwise irretrievably damaged because of this innocuous plant that the powers of racism, big business and plain old temperance freaked out about nearly a hundred years ago. The legacy of the idiots who made the film "Reefer Madness" in 1936 is still alive and well today, in the idiots who oppose loosening our modern prohibition and failed war on Americans who use non-prescribed, non-alcoholic, non-tobacco drugs.

A smug attitude of 'Oh, we're so much smarter now' completely glosses over the plight of those affected by these wrong-headed and stupid laws, and frankly is incorrect, given the rest of our draconian and illogical drug laws--including, in many states, marijuana laws. Satire is important because it points out the uncomfortable, and this show does exactly that.

Here's the piece in full.


It’s hard to explain to the uninitiated just how ridiculously over-the-top the original “Reefer Madness” film really is.

Funded by a church group in 1936 at the height of the race-baiting, anti-marijuana hysteria whipped up by Harry Anslinger and William Randolph Hearst, the film portrayed “marihuana fiends” as sex-maniacs, murderers and finally deranged, amoral lunatics driven insane by the weed.

Beginning in the 1970s, the resurrected film quickly gained cult status on college campuses, the unintentional hilarity of the stilted acting and absurd anti-marijuana claims making it a natural fit for that smoky decade.

And since everything else ever put on celluloid has already been made into a musical, as the world is now officially out of new ideas, Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney decided to make one too--probably while taking bong rips.

But their efforts have been worthwhile. They’ve written 20 hilarious songs, punctuated now and again with reprises of the portentous, minor-key warning of the title song, and a story that doesn’t stray too far from the original exploitation flick.

Equinox Theatre’s production of the show is sharp, and under Colin Roybal’s direction and choreography, the cast mostly strikes the perfect tone--spoken in 1930s, rapid-fire, tough-guy lingo--only occasionally letting the mask slip, revealing self-awareness.

And that’s vital to making a show like this work: the hilarity lies in the characters not knowing that what they are saying and doing is hilarious, and that is a tricky tightrope to walk--the exception being the ensemble of dancing and singing reefer zombies doing their best “Thriller” impression at the top of the show.

Enter Jimmy (Eric Mather) and Mary (Hillary Tae), two sweet kids studying Shakespeare together and making time at the five and dime, because that’s what good, wholesome, white, Christian kids do.


Their underworld counterparts Jack (Arthur Pierce) and Mae (Celia Jones) host an ongoing pot party/orgy at their apartment, with Jack doling out joints to jittery acolytes like mad, giggling Ralph (Adam Perkes) who, we are told, “used to be a college kid.”

Much like “The Rocky Horror Show,” which also drew inspiration from the exploitation films of the first half of the 20th century, “Reefer Madness” is structured around a narrator (Brandon Bill) telling a story of moral decline. He paints the sad portrait of these good kids gone bad, warning of the dangers of listening to “weed-blowing, ginger-colored...agents of evil” like Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong.

And we also get tidbits of information from ensemble members periodically strutting out with signs held aloft, helpfully pointing out lessons to be learned from various set-pieces we’ve just witnessed: “Reefer makes you giggle for no good reason.” Or “Reefer will make you sell your baby for drug money.”

Again, obviously.

As the leads, Eric Mather and Hillary Tae are mostly pitch-perfect. The hyper-kinetic Mather occasionally slips the chain and indulges himself a bit too much in the silliness of the show--like the natural comedian he is--but his offenses are not grave.

And Tae is the quintessential wide-eyed neophyte--until she’s not anymore; it’s just a shame that her voice gets devoured by the Bug’s barn-like space and by the excellent but obviously full sound of the five-piece band. It’s unfortunate that when it comes to musicals, it seems like the Bug is somehow not quite big enough to justify using mics, but too big not to.

Celia Jones as Mae has no problem with being heard; her voice powers through the room and she manages to remain deadly serious even while singing lines like “You once had all the brains/Now they’re just carpet stains...”

Also of note are Katie Rhoades’ dirty, flirty Sally, and Adam Perkes, who threatens to steal the show as the hysterically bent Ralph.

All in all, Roybal and Equinox have put together an excellent show that one hopes will prompt people to educate themselves on the terrible trend of baby-selling drug fiends ravaging the country, in the wake of medical marijuana becoming widely available.

Or maybe it will just make people giggle for two solid hours--but with good reason.

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