Press Releases

Motor Oil and Mortality: What Would Jesus Do? By KEN BULLOCK

Special to the Planet
Tuesday May 03, 2005

The Eastenders Repertory Company is back on the boards in the East Bay at the Ashby Stage, after producing last year’s One Hundred Years of Political Theater at the Eureka Theater across the Bridge, with the premiere of WWJD? Some Good Old Medieval Morality Play Motor Oil, by San Jose playwright Scott Munson, running alternately with Eastenders Founding Artistic Director Charles Polly’s new play, A Knight’s Escape. 

Among the first Bay Area companies that spearheaded the revival of repertory programming, The Eastenders stage plays of all kinds that seem to convey social messages, especially those that chime with contemporary situations. This current pair is no exception, and particularly timely. Of A Knight’s Escape, Charles Polly (who also directs) says, “It’s a story about invasion of privacy, agoraphobia, personal anxiety syndrome...a man who’s afraid of sirens, cars, helicopters,sounds that make him sweat; about taking on the problems of the world and how the media pushes that.” It’s “written in a surreal, nonlinear style ... and promises to keep audiences guessing right up to--and after--the play’s final, mystifying conclusion.” 

WWJD? takes a different tack, that of a burlesque morality play, with a hero (”instead of Everyman”) who begins as anything but anxious: Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Charles Mal de Mer. True to his name, the Fed Chairman is played with much motion and attendant queasiness by longtime Eastender Craig Dickerson,though it’s the audience, not Mal de Mer, that suffers that queasiness, hilariously, until Charles’s crise de conscience midway through the show. 

“We hope this play will bring you pleasure—it won’t give you happiness or political change,” says The Master (of the Revels? “A ruthless dictator,” Peter Matthews) introducing the multi-role actors. He sets the scene: “A cozy street in Washington, D. C.—where you’ll never live.” 

Mal de Mer clutches his high-end, dysfunctional existence like a trophy. The teenage daughter (Claire Martin), “embittered, angry, suicidal, in her teens,” rages at him: “You hate my music, you hate me, you hate my drug addiction!” To her father’s protesting “I do not!” she replies, “Well, I hate you! She settles down to her “afternoon blow,” delivered by butler Septimus (Craig Souza) in bulk, with a meat cleaver to cut the heap into lines. The wife (Veneita Porter) is “embittered, angry, suicidal, in her forties.” Mal de Mer asks her, “My dear, have you under-medicated yourself today? How many times have we talked about this?” His butler, whose father named his sons after Roman emperors from gladiator movies, drives him to his power lunch, mowing down innocent (and poor) bystanders (”Haven’t seen anything so amazing since David Copperfield on Pay-For-View!”)There he rolls, not in the hay, but on the floor of Mme. Kim’s (Venetia Porter again) elite restaurant (”the latest in Vietnamese macrobiotic steakhouses!”), with The Other Woman, Jennifer Jennifer (Michaela Greeley.) “I hate that word, ‘Mistress’ ... I prefer ‘Homewrecker’” he says. He picks up the check for a Siamese twin Elephant-Donkey D. C. Insider (Jeff Thompson and Peter Matthews) while Fatima (Sarah Korda) belly-dances. 

But his credit card’s maxxed—the chairman of the Fed doesn’t “get” cash. His limo won’t start. An Arab cabbie (again, Craig Souza) kicks him out into “Calcutta-On-The-Potomac,” where he hob-nobs in pantomime with the Underworldlings, even breaks crack with them.  

Then he has a vision out of John 3:16, the Lazarus story. He meets “Jesus of Norway” (”He looked like Jeffrey Hunter!”), and his life changes, irrevocably. Just before his speech to Congress, he’s heard to mumble, “Feed the poor!”  

Thus the acronym WWJD?--What Would Jesus Do? 

Dickerson’s spring-loaded walk and rapid-fire gestures and expressions delineate Mal de Mer, flailing a path through this vale of tears with plenty of wry laughter. Susan Edwards’ brisk direction expedites the antics of the cast, kaleidoscopically choreographed by Casey Dacanay. The actors all switch hats with ease, working well, especially in tandem. Dickerson is well paired with Souza and Greeley in particular. The farcical style is somewhere between a 3-D comic book and the original SF Mime Troupe’s pop-eyed, ersatz Commedia Dell’Arte. 

There are characters more and more grotesque as the tale unravels, culminating with the President (encore, Peter Matthews) in camouflage jacket and bright yellow bill cap catching wiffle-ball passes from his scrimmaging advisors. He intones “I’m in the plurality business; one lost sheep, more or less, doesn’t mean much ...” to his wayward Fed Chairman, who protests, “I don’t think Jesus cares how diversified our portfolio is!” However unexemplary an Imitation of Christ WWJD? proves to be, the audience has to agree with the wistful devotional phrase said with shaking head: “A guy like Him comes along once in a blue moon!” 


Eastenders Repertory Company presents WWJD? (alternating with A Knight’s Escape) Thursday-Sunday through May 15 at Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave. $15-18. 568-4118.