screwmachine/eyecandy

SCREWMACHINE bppi coverAWARDS
Scotsman Fringe First, 2005

PRODUCTIONS
Scamp Theatre, Edinburgh Festival Fringe, 2005
Clancy Productions, 59E59 Theaters, New York, 2006
PushPush Theater, Atlanta, 2008

REVIEWS
The spectacle of international capitalism rolls on, an obscene parade of consumerism and greed, the insistent beat of its drum disorienting its willing victims – you, me, everybody. But how do you metaphorise something which is so total that our organic selves are concealed beneath a mound of consumer goods by an entire world view that has replaced the natural with something totally alien to human nature? A game show, of course. CJ Hopkins’ superb rendering of the monstrous alienation created by contemporary consumer society sees Big Bob (David Calvitto) shepherding a lower-middle class American couple Dan (Bill Colieus) and Maura (Nancy Walsh) on a bizarre retro 50s American set, through a succession of meaningless and increasingly sinister questions and activities. Meanwhile, the terrifying figure of Vera (Mike McShane), a gigantic and grotesque transvestite, awaits, punishing those who transgress the unstated, oft-changing rules of the game. This all gets increasingly gruesome, in John Clancy’s assured production, as the two contestants are first showered with contempt by Bob, whose achievement ethic is his only sustaining myth, then beaten by Vera. The idea that those who the gods choose to destroy, they first make mad pulses through the piece, as reality itself is surrogated by the media spectacle of the game show. The early tittering of the audience is transformed into a grim silence, for there is a recognizable truth at the bottom of this agit prop drama, and its about truth, which is generated not by rational observation, but hysterical ideology in our society. The direct confrontation with both philosophical and really quite everyday realities of Hopkins’ text is strong meat, and might not be to all tastes, but this is high quality, and genuinely thought provoking entertainment. **** THE LIST

If the political-advertising principle of equal time were applied to entertainment programming, every game show would be followed by screwmachine/eyecandy. While the game show as a metaphor for the horrors of consumer culture is somewhat overdone, in the hands of C.J. Hopkins the conceit is nothing short of a blistering revelation. The premise is simple: A normal American couple (Bill Coelius, Nancy Walsh) is competing for cash and prizes. What feels like a fairly conventional skit rapidly devolves into a nightmare, as cynical host Bob (Dave Calvitto) – a Mephistopheles with a million-dollar smile – browbeats and humiliates the contestants. He finally dispatches his lovely assistant, Vera (James Cleveland), to club the irate husband with a truncheon. This game is for keeps. Hopkins’s body of work owes a huge debt to the absurdists and so manages to blast beyond the merely political or allegorical to the existential. Bits of Godot and No Exit seem present in all his plays. But the cheerful, shallow arrogance of this particular authority figure and the unfathomable impotence of anyone to do anything but play the game seem to speak particularly to our historical moment. The cast is exceptional, but Nancy Walsh, as the audience’s de facto representative, is a knockout: inarticulate, confused, frustrated. The way out of this horrific game is obvious – except, of course, when you’re in it. TIME OUT NEW YORK

If screwmachine/eyecandy, playwright C.J. Hopkins’s latest indictment of American crassness and overconsumption, serves as any indication, our country hasn’t learned much. … Hopkins’s sharp-toothed satire takes place on the set of the television spectacular The Big Bob Show. Each week, middle-American married couples attempt trivia questions and undertake inane challenges posed by the show’s oleaginous host, “America’s ambassador of culture,” Big Bob (David Calvitto, resplendent in razor-sharp widow’s peak and double-breasted sports coat). In this week’s episode, Dan and Maura Brown (Bill Coelius and Nancy Walsh), “just your average, normal, regular people,” are playing to win stuff, lots of stuff, “a vast assortment of valuable consumer products.” Though they have some difficulty deciphering the rules of the game, the Browns endeavor to answer all of Bob’s questions, even as those questions increasingly confuse and degrade them. Indeed, Big Bob soon dispenses with any pretense of civility or competition. With the aid of his lovely assistant Vera (a statuesque James Cleveland), Big Bob attacks the Browns with their credulity, their greed, and finally, a very stout stick. Figuratively, Hopkins wields a stout stick as well. He doesn’t trade much in subtlety or slant, preferring to bash away at his targets head-on. Hopkins presents a dystopia in which the desire for consumer goods and high ratings trumps all principles. “All you’re really doing here is making fun of us as if we were idiots,” Dan complains to Big Bob. Of course, Dan admits, “I could understand if it’s for entertainment purposes.” Then Vera wallops him again. Screwmachine/eyecandy, under John Clancy’s hypomanic direction, certainly does entertain. All the performers — Calvitto especially— spit out their lines in Clancy’s speedy, semiautomatic style. If Hopkins’s script rarely surprises, it does satisfy as it takes the scenario to its inevitable and absurd conclusion, which features screams, tears, head wounds, several toasters, and Bob’s sweaty, Solomonic utterance, delivered to the audience, that humankind has spent “thousands of years all struggling towards this one great goal — to this, to us. VILLAGE VOICE

You’d have to go a long way to find a show with so much to say about society and the way we live … A hyperreal, tragicomedy, laced with wicked wit and spiked with horror, it’s rooted in the let ’em eat shit cruelty of Euripides’ Bacchae. **** METRO

A 21st Century American nightmare … As theatre, screwmachine/eyecandy is bleak and uncompromising to the point of becoming difficult to watch. It begins at high pitch of game-show frenzy combined with a nasty atmosphere of threat, and continues at or above that level throughout its whole length … But as a metaphor for the unaccountable, bullying, shape-changing and fear-mongering face of power in our increasingly media-driven consumer democracies, it could hardly be more potent and the purple-and-yellow domestic nightmare of the slightly surreal studio set adds a twist of lurid visual spectacle to one of the angriest and most chilling pieces of political theatre on this year’s Fringe.
**** THE SCOTSMAN

The use of the game show as metaphor for what is politely called the American condition is not a new concept … The premise has been used in films such as The Truman Show and Magnolia. CJ Hopkins has made brazen use of this metaphor to create a vicious piece of agit prop. Over successive years the plays that John Clancy and his coterie of favoured performers have brought to Edinburgh have become progressively more direct in their demands for social and political action. Starting with the slick, Brian Parks penned Americana Absurdum, and followed by the surreal trip through the hinterland of the US in CJ Hopkins’ Horse Country in 2002, Clancy has gradually turned up the volume … Not only does [screwmachine/eyecandy] beat its audiences harder, but it contains fragmentary glimpses of America’s vastness that leave you breathless. THE GUARDIAN

screwmachine/eyecandy starts out as one of those eyes-and-teeth American TV game shows but rapidly descends into something much blacker and almost surreal as America’s relationship with consumerism and the media is unerringly skewered. If it wasn’t for the latter, of course, the former might not be the religion that it seems to be … [An] impeccably judged production by veteran John Clancy, up to and including the appearance by Mike McShane in a gold sequinned frock and red high heels. [a] quite astonishing performance by David Calvitto as the host who starts at 90 miles an hour, has 90 per cent of the dialogue and never misses a beat. **** THE TIMES

screwmachine/eyecandy Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Big Bob (the full title) is one scary show. As directed by John Clancy and performed to perfection by David Calvitto as Bob, James Cleveland as his announcer, and Bill Coelius and Nancy Walsh as the victims—I mean, contestants—it’s a breathtaking event: theatre not merely as cautionary fable or wakeup call, but as urgent attempt to drag its audience kicking and screaming out of their chairs and onto a stage—any stage—where they might regain their rights and dignity and engage in their world with passion and vigor … Everything about Hopkins’s extraordinarily controlled script feels uneasy and uncomfortable; this is as much NOT like a play as the game being played out inside it is NOT like a game show … If you’ve seen some of Hopkins’s other works—the seminal Horse Country, for example—then you’ll probably have a clue or two about what’s afoot in this very unsettling theatre experience … This is a play that’s defiantly and smugly not a play; instead, a happening that spirals in and out of itself, sucking us in to its faux world and then spitting us out again, trying to focus us on what’s going on in this particular room expressly so that when we leave it we’ll stay focused on what’s going on in all the other rooms we go to afterward. It’s not an easy ride; it doesn’t want to be. But if you come prepared to listen, really listen to what’s being said; to be wary of the cues and the angles that a slick host like Big Bob will drop and/or spew, then you can find yourself thoroughly shaken up when your hour in the theatre is finished. Clancy’s staging of this intricate puzzle of a play feels pretty near flawless to me … Calvitto is spellbinding as Bob, his concentration never wavering as he controls the entire universe of the show… Cleveland, offstage as announcer Chip Devlin and occasionally onstage as a scary gorilla-like version of Vanna White is terrific. Coelius is wrenchingly real as Dan, the hapless contestant, while Walsh makes a startling and moving journey from eager passivity to beaten-down self-awareness as Maura, the character who really is our surrogate, or at least our guide … Theatre doesn’t have to be this hard on an audience, but after the rigorous gut-punch of a show like this you realize that hard is good; affirming, even. The Dr. Strangelove and George Orwell allusions in the title are intended and entirely apt, see screwmachine/eyecandy; do not stop worrying. NYTHEATRE.COM

This show might offend but it is absolutely exhilarating. … Above all screwmachine/eyecandy will be remembered for a long time for David Calvitto’s remarkable performance as Big Bob. He won an award for Best Actor three years ago when he appeared in Horse Country by the same writer and this performance is even better. ***** THE BRITISH THEATRE GUIDE

PushPush Theater’s screwmachine/eyecandy depicts an ordinary middle class couple, Dan and Maura Brown (Randy Havens and Claire Christie), that finds its marital trust, its personal dignity and its faith in the American way of life tested under enormous pressure. The venue? A TV program called “The Big Bob Show” in Burbank, Calif. Subtitled “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Big Bob,” CJ Hopkins’ darkly comedic play takes what would seem like an out-of-date, obvious target — “wacky” 1970s-style game shows — and pushes it into surprising territory that’s at first hilarious, then horrifying. It’s as if Nobel Prize-winner Harold Pinter had eschewed the theater of menace to work with Chuck Woolery or Monty Hall. Matt Stanton plays host Big Bob as a glib jokester whose questions and patter turn increasingly hostile. While beaming at the folks at home and extolling the show’s “consumer items,” he taunts Dan for his dreary-sounding job, hits on Maura, loses his temper, claims he was kidding and peppers the couple with unanswerable questions … Stanton sustains a remarkable level of intensity for the 80-minute play, steering the tone from merely frivolous to sinister. The announcer describes the game as having “No rules!” and Havens and Christie both project the confusion and dawning resentment of ordinary, hardworking Americans who discover that the system is rigged. Havens effectively nurses Dan’s wounded pride, but Christie offers an energetic, ultimately devastating performance as Maura tries to process their predicament. An eager competitor — “It’s the winning itself that’s so exciting, even more than what you win” — Maura initially makes excuses for Big Bob’s behavior, until she finds the situation utterly nightmarish. Her role wouldn’t be half so affecting if Christie didn’t make Maura so credible. PushPush Theater frequently bills itself as a workshop theater and in the program notes director Tim Habeger describes screwmachine/eyecandy as the equivalent of a work in progress that may get an “actual run” in 2009. Frankly, the distinction is lost on me. screwmachine/eyecandy may be a little unpolished and has room for more elaborate props and audio/visual effects, but it packs more punch than many “real” plays I’ve seen in 2008. CREATIVE LOAFING ATLANTA