Thursday, July 21, 2011

Under the Sea: "Salty Towers" at Thunderbird Theatre

Pity poor Poseidon. After he and his two brothers defeated Cronus and divided the world between them, Zeus gained dominion over the heavens and was crowned king of the gods. Hades gained dominion over the underworld and an everlasting bad-ass reputation. And Poseidon gained dominion over -- the ocean? Well, maybe some gods would have made the best of it, but Poseidon doesn't seem to have been too happy. Most of the myths about him depict him as an angry and resentful god, unleashing mighty storms upon unlucky mortals (Odysseus, Hippolytus, Idomeneo). And in perhaps the most famous myth featuring Poseidon, he loses the contest to become patron god of Athens when he gives the city a spring of salt water (whereas Athena provides an olive tree). Not very impressive, to be sure.

For their play Poseidon in the San Francisco Olympians Festival last summer, authors Bryce Alleman, Dana Constance and Kathy Hicks decided to accept that Poseidon is an underdog among gods, and mine that for comedy. As they see it, Poseidon is the beleaguered proprietor of a shabby undersea hotel. He hopes to win the right to host the Olympics and thus get revenge on Athena, but complications arrive in the form of his venomous wife Medusa, his mischievous hotel staff of sea creatures, and several troublesome guests.

Twelve months later, Thunderbird Theatre is giving this play a full production, having hilariously re-christened it Salty Towers in the meantime. Yes, it's a parody of Fawlty Towers, with Poseidon in the John Cleese role. I should note, though, that I've never seen an episode of Fawlty Towers but didn't feel lost or confused during the play. (And yes, this also means that the plays of last summer's Olympians Festival are now batting 3 for 12 when it comes to full productions!)

Salty Towers authors Bryce, Dana, and Kathy are all company members of Thunderbird, which was founded over 10 years ago with the goal of producing original comedic plays. Not black comedies or drawing-room comedies, but unabashed broad humor, farce, and parody. As such, Salty Towers was written in "Thunderbird style," featuring a large cast and a story that is more a succession of incidents than a complex narrative. New characters and sub-plots are constantly introduced throughout the play, and then everything gets resolved by a deus ex machina: Poseidon accidentally gets knocked out for two days, has a dream sequence, and when he comes to, everything is OK. You could argue that the Greeks invented the deus ex machina and thus it is brilliantly clever for a Greek-inspired play to employ this technique, but I feel like that would be overthinking things. Though it would be more challenging, I did wish to see the characters work their conflicts out organically.

The large cast of characters parading across the stage, though, provides a great showcase for Sara Briendel's witty costumes. The gods wear 1970s styles on top and togas on the bottom, while papier-mache and puppetry allows actors to portray sea creatures. As for the characterizations of the gods -- always one of my favorite parts of an Olympians Festival play -- I liked the comic depictions of Dionysus as a Jim Morrison-quoting stoned hippie and Hestia as a giggling, frumpy nerd. But I'm not sure I understood the decision to portray Hermes as a snooty closeted homosexual (usually he's more of a trickster jock), and while it was briefly amusing to hear fire-stealing Prometheus talk like a 1930s Chicago gangster, the portrayal was overly broad. Meanwhile, Poseidon himself is sympathetic, but not the most memorable or compelling character in the play. Throughout it, he's essentially reacting to the crazy hi-jinks of his customers and staff, not making decisions of his own.

One of Poseidon's employees at the undersea hotel is a Portuguese man o' war. In the real world, this jelly-like creature has long venomous tentacles, but in Salty Towers, it's portrayed more like an electric eel, with tentacles that light up and deliver electric shocks. And maybe that's a good metaphor for Salty Towers as a whole. It has the capacity to deliver jolts of wit, laughter, and electricity. But the play also lacks an internal structure that would give it a more solid shape.

Salty Towers is playing through July 23 at the Exit Theater. See for more info.

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