The Devil Wears Promo
Theater / Let’s start with what you think you know. Your opinion about rail?
What about your stand on development? Your views on global warming? Possibly, even while reading this review (and we’ll get to the review stuff momentarily), what you think you know–or are willing to believe–will have been served up to you like a Healthy Choice entree from the microwave cooker of public relations. Anti-rail mayoral candidate and former Gov. Ben Cayetano told the Weekly June 27, “If I win, the one thing I will not be paying for is the stuff they paid for PR people.”
Parallel Realities, one of two current offerings at The Actors’ Group (TAG) playhouse at Dole Cannery Square, is a new play. New plays are like newborns, needing special care and attention. This newborn, however, is a baby alligator: cute at the start, but willing to bite off your finger once the little beast grows.
Playwright John Wythe White adopts the mantles of Moliere and Gogol, two playwrights who loved to tickle audiences with the sharp point of a knife.
You laugh while you bleed.
White’s blade here aims directly at the manufacturers of consent–those artists of bullshit called “public relations professionals.” But White’s knife cuts both ways. Like Gogol’s Governor in The Inspector General who shouts at the audience, “What are you laughing at? You are laughing at yourselves!”, director David C. Farmer has a central character look directly at us and say, “The public has been transformed into an indifferent and manageable entity. A nation of sheep.”
And altogether, we sheepishly nod our heads–reason enough to go see this show.
The plot of Parallel Realities is pretty straightforward. Let’s call it The Devil Wears Promo. Julie Gunderson (Eden Ferrer) is a bright young woman seeking a job at Pacific Resources (ring a bell?), a public relations firm in Honolulu. The dragon lady vetting Julie is Margo Parrish (Denise Aiko-Chinen), a veteran of the business. To call Margo self-serving would be an error: she serves the firm’s clients and is, therefore, amoral. On Margo’s side of the playing field is the lecherous CEO of Pacific Resources, Ted Peabody (Ron Heller). At the opposite end is a UH student intern at the firm, local boy Brian Fong (Tony Young).
The conflict is the growing sense within Julie that she is not serving the cause of the common good, as she tells Margo, by “twisting the truth so that your big-shot clients get whatever they want.” If many of the “hypothetical” and plot-related PR situations sound familiar to us as Hawaii residents, then White’s game of mumbletypeg has landed the knife’s point close to the gut.
In point of fact (pun intended), there is a disclaimer planted in every program. In it, White explains that the choice of name for his PR firm is based upon the letters “P” and “R” and is not, as one might naively surmise, related to “the recently-formed anti-Cayetano PAC [political action committee], Pacific Resource Partnership . . . .” Nor is White related to its executive director, the similarly named John White–offering us a fine example of life imitating art.
Getting a new play up and on the boards, however, is where life and art collide. This is a task as difficult as convincing folks that rail will reduce traffic congestion or that a massive construction project isn’t going to blight the landscape.
In staging Parallel Realities, director Farmer must have felt like a juggler spinning dishes on top of a dozen frighteningly thin poles. That most of those dishes stay in place is a testament to the balancing act he, his performers, and his crew have accomplished. Still, there are a few crashes along the way; new plays don’t come with a history of production. Actors will not have seen or heard about a Big Apple version of the show, so Farmer and TAG require folks willing to take a risk and audition. (Actors are more risk adverse than one might imagine. Some never do anything other than musicals. For that matter, some audience members never see anything other than musicals.)
The cast of Parallel Realities does well enough with the new material. In the role of Julie, Ferrer keeps her portrayal even-handed and likable. In the role of local hotel mogul Mitch Medeiros, Non DeMello provides many laughs as he struggles to remember his talking points during a session of “media training.”
Tony Young is especially impressive in his scenes with Ferrer. As Brian, Young convincingly portrays an earnest, youthful college student enthusiastic about his work but also concerned about the morality of what he’s doing. I felt, though, that there needed to be more of a reason, either in the plot or through Ferrer’s portrayal of her character, to help us see why Julie eventually aligns with Brian’s views.
One of the spinning plates that Farmer and crew have to work with is the size of the TAG space and the number of locations Parallel Realities requires: three offices, a conference room, a set change to another office, and, in between some scenes, PowerPoint presentations, news segments and even commercials. Andy Alverado’s set manages to satisfy all these needs within a space the size of a living room, helped along by Thomas Tochiki’s lighting.
At one point in the play, Margo references the political commentator Walter Lippmann. In 1927’s The Phantom Public, Lippmann warns that the populace could easily be led by its nose. He writes, “The public will arrive in the middle of the third act and will leave before the last curtain, having stayed just long enough perhaps to decide who is the hero and who the villain of the piece.”
So who will help you decide about local issues?
John Wythe White knows the answer: no one but the friendly folks in PR.