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‘Reefer Madness’ one-act is all over the map

Maryann MaslanSpecial to the Daily Planet
Saturday August 11, 2001

Reefer Madness, a 1936 anti-marijuana film that became a cult classic in the 1970s, has been adapted for the stage by the Elements of Theatre Company. 

The low-budget anti-drug film, directed by Louis Gassier and written by Arthur Hoer, vividly portrayed the effects of the drug: uncontrollable laughter, wild parties, madness, violence and death. The film was produced under the guise of a tool to educate parents and communities on teen activities. 

By the 1970s the overwrought acting and dialogue made the film a cult comedy classic. 

The Elements of Theatre Company, a new Berkeley performance group committed to revisiting old theater, film and radio pieces in new ways, premiered its one-act adaptation at the La Pena Cultural Center last week. 

To set the mood for the show, the audience was invited to buy raffle tickets for ‘the wicked water pipe’ used on stage and was advised to smoke their ‘wacky tobaccy’ outside after the show. 

The energetic eight-member ensemble, each playing a number of roles, tried a variety of acting styles from slapstick to operetta to shock and amuse the audience. 

All the familiar characters were there and faithful to the original dialogue. Tisha Sloan, as narrator, opened the show by introducing the audience to the dangers of the drug craze. Her mocking presentation of the dated dialogue and Amy Konwerski’s imaginative costume, a stylized version of 1930s science fiction films, held great promise for the show. 

But the style and manner of presentation changed continuously throughout the 70-minute production distracting from any statement the company was trying to make. 

At one point the cast lined up facing the audience to deliver a conversation. Not looking at each other and deadpan, their delivery accentuated the ridiculousness of the dialogue. This worked well, was used once, then dropped. 

Later, in one of the party scenes, the cast gradually worked its way into song then moved to a parody of opera in another attempt to mock the script. 

But as the action became more melodramatic and operatic the style switched to vaudeville. 

The cast romped and played, mugged, willfully dropped in and out of character, and demonstrated a versatility and willingness to try anything. 

The sound, designed by Badger Kong, backed them up. It added dimension to the action on stage with frantic music, cheering crowds and the echo of gunshots. 

The two young innocents, Bill and Mary, played by Coby Fisher and Tisha Sloan, misconnected in the Romeo and Juliet scene. Using the two levels of the stage to add distance to the exchange, the actors camped the comic view of a film that took itself seriously, and created cartoon characters. 

The challenge of successfully taking on a cult classic fell short of the goals of the company: to change the way people view themselves and their world. 

Overall, the production needed more focus and a firmer hand from director Zachary Preston. 

This was the first time this group of actors worked together and given the short three-week rehearsal time, it looked like the company and the audience had fun.