By Bryson David Hoff
Political satire is always a big sell during an election year. Even the least contentious election is a source of stress for the politically inclined, so it stands to reason that in the midst of this year’s increasingly hostile political environment audiences are clamoring for a laugh to take the edge off of the upcoming election.
Unfortunately, such laughs are in short supply in Annoyance Theater’s Dank Tank.
The show centers on the dubious premise that, in the year 2017, the Illinois State Legislature is about to coalesce around a Colorado-style marijuana legalization law, due in no small part to the machinations of agribusiness lobbyist/evil sorceress Donsanto (Marybeth Kram). The proceedings surrounding the final vote are complicated by the arrival of the titular Tank (Nick Shine), a time-traveling “supercop” from the year 2073, where nationwide legalization of marijuana has led to the total collapse of society. With the aid of Jessie (Stephanie Seweryn), the Republican whip, Tank attempts to convince the powers that be to stop the bill from passing in order to change the future.
Over the course of the show, it is difficult to discern whether the piece is meant to be pro-marijuana, anti-marijuana or is trying to use marijuana policy as a stand-in to talk about something else. The last option seems to be the most likely, as neither the pro- nor the anti-legislation characters are painted in a flattering light, and the ending of the show presents a fourth-wall-breaking argument that the unhappy ending has been brought on by the wrong-doings of all of the characters, an argument that, when viewed retroactively, doesn’t actually hold up with the story.
However, if the creative team’s intention was to make a broader statement about how lawmakers do not look out for the common interest and that their constituents perpetuate the behavior by not making their anger known when their representatives stiff them, using marijuana policy as the central conflict is counter-productive, given that an increasing majority of the American public is in favor of some form of marijuana legalization and the manner in which its passage has created Tank’s apocalyptic future is not fleshed-out enough for it to be credible, either to the other characters or the audience.
A plot, however, is often excusable in comedy if the individual jokes land. Unfortunately, Dank Tank’s gags fall flat far more often than they hit the mark. It is difficult to discern whether the problem is in the performers, the material or both, as the majority of the cast members are so low in energy that many jokes are simply blown past without even given a chance to land. A notable exception is Bruce Phillips in the role of Governor Sampson, who manages to consistently commit to his characterizations and makes full use of his talent for Leslie Nielson-esque deadpan smarm to inject a life into his dialogue that is sorely lacking for the majority of the proceedings.
While some of the dialogue might well be serviceable with more life put behind it, the score definitely does no favors for the actors. The unlavaliered performers are often completely drowned out by the backing music, consisting of a solo piano and a flat, over-amplified MIDI track. It doesn’t help that many of the female performers are made to sing in a range that requires frequent switches into head-voices, which are utterly swallowed by the acoustics of the room. The result renders many of the jokes and plot points that may be contained in the songs completely inaudible to the audience.
If there is anything to be praised in the production, the scenic design is charming in its low-tech, DIY aesthetic. The un-credited scenic designer deserves special commendations for finding a clever manner in which to render two bathroom stalls that accommodates site lines while still, aided by a bit of clever staging by Director Jessica Landis, creates a genuine sense of claustrophobia.
This and a few other moments that hint at some glimmers of promise in the Dank Tank are few and far between, however. The piece is, on the whole, plagued by a rambling energy that lacks build or dramatic tension without enough humor to compensate for the flat characterization, aimless plot and garbled thematic message. Theatre fans absolutely desperate for a musical stoner comedy with a healthy dose of satire would do better to see if they can secure a dime-bag and a copy of the film adaptation of Reefer Madness: The Musical. They will find better bang for their buck.
“Dank Tank” runs Friday nights at 8 pm through September 2 at Annoyance Theatre, 851 W Belmont Ave, Chicago. Tickets ($20) are available online here.