Our Own Voice (OOV), the increasingly eclectic performance troupe whose last major offering was a double bill featuring E.E. Cummings' confounding one-act Santa Claus followed by Antonin Artaud's confounding and virtually unstageable Spurt of Blood, has done a complete 360. OOV's Spurt of Blood was a surprisingly accessible, visually compelling glimpse into the dark, depressed mind of the man whose "Theatre of Cruelty" forever changed the way we think about the constructs of live performance.
OOV's most recent production, Ecstatic Disco Nights (Tingles Hot Lover), is a case where an extremely accessible form -- the freeform boogie of disco dancing -- has been rendered confounding. This is not to say that the show is difficult to understand, watch, and enjoy -- nothing could be further from the truth. But OOV's great strength has been its ability to produce original productions that are as entertaining as they are engaging and enlightening. OOV shows like Ephemera and This Is Not an Outlet have addressed everything from the ridiculousness of local community theater to the media's negative profiling of people with mental illness. The problem with Ecstatic Disco Nights is that it seems to address nothing at all other than shaking "that thing," glandular attractions, equally glandular revulsions, and the utter foolishness of disco clothes. This entertaining emptiness would be perfectly acceptable from another theater troupe, but OOV's reputation for making smart, socially significant theater left me grasping for meaning, searching for metaphor, and trying desperately to read between the line dances. Silly me, there was nothing there to read.
For Ecstatic Disco Nights OOV transforms TheatreWorks into a disco. The floor is painted with geometric figures and glittery cutouts of stars hang from the ceiling. Lights throb to the disco beat. The audience is held in the lobby until it's time for the play to begin, at which point the patrons are scrutinized by a bouncer who reluctantly allows even the least glamorous into the performance space. This is not the first time OOV has tried to turn TheatreWorks into a different kind of performance venue. Two seasons ago the troupe presented a piece titled Supergroups A+, a rock opera of sorts and one of the best bits of musical theater to ever appear on a Memphis stage. Supergroups was a fine collaboration between one of OOV's principal writers, Randy Wayne Youngblood, OOV directors Bill and Kimberly Baker, and such local rock luminaries as Tripp Lamkins (the Grifters, Jetty Webb, and the Villains) and Joey Pegram (the Joint Chiefs). Youngblood's dense, circuitous writing, which focuses less on his own struggle with mental illness and more on relationships and his obsession with rock-and-roll, was well-suited for musical adaptation. Lamkins' score out-rocked Tommy by a kuntry kilo and set a new (if not widely known) standard for rock-and-roll theatricals. The show, presented more as a concert than a narrative, explored the rituals of the rock concert, and the songs themselves ranged from throbbing introspection to out-and-out Pentecostal abandon. It worked as theater because it all but abandoned everything we expect from theater and let the audience decide whether or not they would observe a play or participate in a concert.
In Youngblood's latest staged fantasy, Ecstatic Disco Nights, the fourth wall is, in spite of well-received pleas for participation, a little more firmly in place. And while Kimberly Baker's choreography was perfectly charming, sweet, and filled with comic flourishes, it's just a little bit weird sitting in a theater seat and watching more organized and certainly more sanitized versions of what could be observed on any Saturday night at Raiford's Hollywood.
One truly exciting thing about Ecstatic Disco Nights is the age range and dance experience (or lack thereof) of the cast. Pre-teens and middle-aged schlubs share the strobing spotlight. Trained dancers swap leads with the congenitally left-footed and the piece is that much richer because of it. Though the hodgepodge of talent occasionally calls to mind the sweet "Guffmanesque" ineptness of community theater, by and large the results are both endearing and encouraging. When, in the end, Kimberly Baker invited the audience to become a part of the show, the response was, while not unanimous, still quite overwhelming. Here is the Catch 22: Without the context of the sweetly awkward show, it is doubtful so many audience members would have participated. But by waiting 'til the end of the show to make the big plea for participation the plea becomes less of a theatrical tool than an easy gimmick.
OOV's artistic director, Bill Baker, served as deejay, spinning the platters and offering up hot-jock-style commentary provided by Youngblood. All too often, however, Baker's voice was drowned out by the music and much of Youngblood's prose disappeared. About the only thing that really stood out was the very funny, scathingly ironic declaration "This is not a cult!" Of course, the disco scene is, in a sense, a cult. It is a cult of fashion, sex, intoxication, and ecstatic abandon. But anyone who has ever been to a club knows this already. What OOV hoped to add to our perception of disco culture remains a mystery, though it's hard to fault this typically cutting-edge troupe for laying back and just having a little fun.