Quentin Tarantino once reminisced about the strange compliment that old master of maverick filmmaking, Sam Fuller, gave his heist film, Reservoir Dogs at an early screening. “So, you made that film about morons? That’s good; it’s been awhile since anyone’s made a film about morons.”
That seemingly off-the-wall review could be applied to George Walker’s play, Criminal Genius, staged by TheatreFIRST at the Old Oakland Theatre. Walker’s savvy (and hilarious) take on a dysfunctional crime family—well, really a loopy menage operating out of a crummy motel—provides a rare glimpse into the very theatrical, imaginative yet worldly work of this accomplished Canadian playwright, who never fails to discover social dimension in the most solipsistic character’s comic soliloquies.
Ironically, too, as TheatreFIRST artistic director Clive Chafer pointed out, it comes on the heels of a month-long run of Walker’s short plays on the UC campus. “Walker must be wondering about this sudden burst of interest in the East Bay!” he said.
Non-violent father-and-son crime team Rolly (Soren Oliver) and Stevie (Mick Mize), holed up in the cheap motor lodge (glaring painting of an eagle aloft under the volcano hangs above the bedstead), find it hard to confront Phillie (John Sousa), the alcoholic motel clerk, who wants the 40 bucks they don’t have for another day’s stay, much less their hectoring boss Shirley (Amy Crumpacker), who wants to know why they haven’t torched the building she hired them to burn ... or even to communicate with each other without squabbling over everything.
They are truly proud, however, of their trophy, proof of genuine malfeasance: a hostage, Amanda (Erin Carter), who turns out not only to be the daughter of the client who hired Shirley (who, of course, hired them), but her father’s antagonist—a driven, oddly charismatic figure who quickly reorganizes this little gang of losers, while recruiting sheets-to-the-wind Phillie to the cause, to follow her on a quixotic, ninja-like assault on daddy’s crime empire.
The plot of this caper-gone-sideways veers all over the boards, concentrated within the four flimsy walls of the drive-in flophouse, constantly interrupted by all kinds of verbal (and physical) slapstick that keeps the characters convulsed—as well as the audience.
Erin Gilley’s direction and the trouperish ensemble keep the jerky, idiosyncratic rhythms of Walker’s tale slouching onward towards its absurd Armageddon, each member of this little Wild Bunch putting in more than their two cents’ worth, over and over. Some of the syncopations and nuances aren’t quite there, yet; Walker’s Canadian comic idiom, wrangling over the most minute of discrepancies (think Doonesbury), hasn’t totally translated into Stateside-ese, but the lemming-like forward motion of the hellbent gang gains its dynamic as it goes, and it certainly does go.
Valiant thespians TheatreFIRST have spent the past five weeks converting a former architectural office, removing cubicles and carpet, to a very serviceable performing space. It’s a pleasing addition to the nightlife of Oakland’s vigorous Old Town, across Broadway from Chinatown—an urbane East Bay treat.
Presented by TheatreFirst at 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays and at 3 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 19. Old Oakland Theatre, 481 Ninth St., Oakland. $19-$25. 436-5085. www.theatrefirst.com.