By Patrick O’Brien
Apropos for a show involving aliens, anyone who comes to Strawdog Theatre’s Take Me is liable to feel an unexpected kinship with the elite handful who’ve alleged a close encounter with extraterrestrials. You will be impelled to describe the indescribable things you saw to everyone you meet, and it’s likely no one will believe any of it
But take it on faith, wary traveler: Take Me is flabbergasting.
It’s billed as a “comic fantasia” — shorter, perhaps, than a “country-tinged alien abduction nervous breakdown musical” — but there’s a simple story at its heart that you’d hope would be the anchor point while careening between extremes. Shelley (Nicole Bloomsmith) is a middle-aged woman who’s totally at sea in life — her husband is comatose, her son is missing, she’s trapped in a soulless job and her parents have little faith that any of that is going to change. But then she finds a bizarre solace in alien conspiracy theories, which drive her to conclude her husband and son have been abducted, and the only way to bring them home is to build a homecoming spaceport in Roswell, New Mexico, but in the form of an amusement park.
Strange as that premise sounds, this piece has the potential to be a fun-house mirror held up to humanity’s (in)ability to cope with tragedy and misfortune. We can stay on board for this. That is until we encounter, among other things, living toys, sequined galaxy-hopping country music stars and a city council made up of ex-Soviet dogs.
When comical and fantastical elements feel out of place in a comic fantasia, something has gone wrong.
Bookwriter Mark Guarino is a brave soul to embrace so much weirdness, but he should be mindful when it’s just weirdness for its own sake, with little thought as to how to make dream logic mesh with dramatic logic.
Like, why does Shelley’s childhood plush dog speak to her? Is she meant to symbolize Shelley’s own stunted childhood, or the motherhood that was robbed of her when her son was kidnapped? It’s not quite clear, but Doggie sings a song or two.
Why is Shelley’s guide into the world of alien conspiracy theories a sequined galaxy-hopping country music star? Is Shelley partial to country music? Is his flamboyance and grit meant to contrast and challenge her own drab existence? It’s not quite clear, but he sings a song or two.
Why are the gatekeepers to Shelley’s Roswell ambitions ex-Soviet dogs?
Good question. I have a million more. (And yes, the ex-Soviet dogs sing a song.)
Even if any of these things came to anything, there’s something — either in the text or direction — that mellows out all this extreme weirdness. Shelley barely bats an eye at the passing strangeness. Hell, she barely bats an eye when she suddenly reckons with the hard truth about her husband and son. It’s this all-too-peachy-keenness that holds back Bloomsmith’s otherwise Herculean performance. All the more aggravating is when everyone isn’t acting hunky-dory, they’re pulling faces to push the latest snarky disposable topical one-liner across the finish line.
The score, for its part, seems blissfully unaware of what it is meant to musicalize. It’s not that Jon Langford’s amiable folky bubblegum country pop itself is wrong, per se. Perhaps it could almost work if the whole thing was keyed in a kooky retro Space Race 60s style. (His catchy, i.e. oft-reprised, duet “Falling” wouldn’t sound out of place coming out of Frankie and Annette on the beach.) But, complementing the script, songs are added on, but they don’t add up.
The punchline: there is one moment in this whole show that works. Really works. A complete break from the inanity before and yet to come. Top of Act Two: Shelley has assembled a scale model of the Roswell spaceport/amusement park. The lights are dimmed and the cast sings a paean to this fantastical dream in a prickly but eerily beautiful a capella. Followed shortly thereafter by a hot burst of reality as a now-panicked Shelley, reckoning with what she has built, monologues about the day her son was taken. Bloomsmith is suddenly searing, her words building and building to an all-too-relatable discovery. Losing someone you love doesn’t need an interplanetary explanation, it can be as easy as stepping away for a moment.
Words, music, and humanity in perfect sync…where has this show been?
It’s a tiny pebble of a moment, but it’s worth holding onto. Go back and start over from there. And please, by all means, take us to the stars. But for the love of God, Xenu, whoever, bring us back down to Earth. We want to believe what you have to say.
“Take Me” plays until June 22 at Strawdog’s new home, 1802 W. Berenice Avenue, Chicago. More information and details are available here.