When director Mario Gonzales welcomed the audience to Round Belly Theatre Company’s performance last Sunday at West Oakland’s Noodle Factory, offhandedly acknowledging it was Father’s Day, there was some irony: Living Room, billed as an ensemble piece, is more about what keeps the family apart than together, no one more estranged than dear old dad.
Gonzales recounts in the program the six-week series of “improvisational, ensemble-building and creative writing exercises” during which the piece was developed, the characters drawn from 1950s television family comedies—a familiar resort for sketch comedy as well as more serious theater.
The family—Patrick Holt as Dad, Katie Meinholt as Mom, Son played by Lucas Buckman (an alum of Berkeley High’s Independent Theatre Productions) and Josh Han as Baby—present themselves like they’re in a box, or terrarium, acting out their dysfunctionality through speeches to the audience, dialogue, jittery rewinds and fast-forwards in and out of flashbacks, and parody of boob-tube familial cheerfulness and rancor that would make a cat scream.
Son mopes; Dad fumes and lashes out; Mom acts positive and sticks to it vehemently when questioned, showing the strain. Only Baby, dressed as a superhero in beachtowel cape, necktie headband and Snoopy slippers, is really happy, because he wants to be: “I know exactly who I am ... I’ve been meditating lately.”
Son, swathed in bathtowel, looks at the mirror image of his fondled chesthair, over the audience, while talking into a handheld tape recorder. “It’s not like I haven’t been with girls before. Boys, too. I have the Internet ... we all face the night alone.” Meanwhile Mom stands outside the bathroom door, fretting: “I know you’re in there, talking to yourself again.”
“Damn the day I was born,” Dad curses, holding a Channelmaster. “Why won’t my numbers hit?”
Baby tells about his day in school— “We learned about Class, and Privilege, and Power, Diversity, Colonialism and Dancing”—and threatens a hunger strike, immediately following next week’s “spaghetti night.”
There’s a visit from Grandma, never seen, as the family faces the audience and fawns. “My favorite mother-in-law!” says unxious Dad.
Son comes in drunk, and Mom confronts him, while Baby crouches behind the sofa, eavesdropping. Earlier, Dad said of Son, “He’s almost old enough to buy cigarettes and pornography.” Son: “C’mon 18!”
Living Room is mostly vignettes, soliloquies and asides. There’s satire amid the parody. Given the theme, Round Belly could use a bit more alienation, of the theatrical type, making a clearer definition (like TV, there’s sometimes a “low def” sense here) between narrative and theater, a common enough blur in many other shows. Some of their best, most theatrical moments—Dad sulking in a bright jumpsuit, slouched in the recliner Mom has sworn she’ll burn someday; Baby’s Zorro-like leap from behind the couch and prowl after Mom and Son have it out; saying hello (and goodbye) to Grandma—could use a little underscoring, some of that sense of demonstrating, of showing something Brecht used to talk about when he’d mention “alienation,” or just plain strangeness.
“I am married to a man who believes he’s an embarrassment to his family,” Mom shares with us. And finishing on the “strangest” upbeat note of all: “I love the idea of family ... They think family happens to everybody.”
Presented by Round Belly Theatre Co. at 8 p.m. Friday, June 26 and Saturday, June 27, at the Noodle Factory, 1255-26th St. at Union (a few blocks west of McClymons High School), West Oakland. Suggested donation: $10.