Wednesday, July 21, 2004

'Poona' has sporadic comic bite

Rude Guerrilla's cast scores even where Jeff Goode's parody of kiddie TV shows is hit-or-miss.

 By ERIC MARCHESE
Special to the Register

 If sketch humor were easy to write, TV programs like "Saturday Night Live" would have remained at the top of the ratings for all these years. But as the quality level of the writing has declined, so has the show.

As seen in Rude Guerrilla Theater Company's new production of it, much of Jeff Goode's "Poona the dog and Other Plays for Children" –which is definitely not for kids – plays like TV sketch humor. At least "Poona," unlike current editions of "SNL," zips mercifully quickly from one comic idea to the next. Not all of Goode's ideas are comically sound, but he keeps things moving, apparently using the same everything-but-the- kitchen-sink approach that helped Monty Python create magic - and hard belly laughs - for years.

 Despite all the zing lent by director Steven Parker and his cast, Goode's text is filled with old arguments dressed in a mock-subversive package. Americans are shallow and lazy. They rely upon TV for their opinions. All popular entertainment is driven by  violence and sex. Social customs are often hypocritical. American society is driven by crass commercialism. Though there's more than a grain of truth to these concepts, "Poona" makes us wade through deep fields of doggie doo to get to the script's few authentic gems.

 In the faraway land of Allegory and Myth lives the dog Poona (Jami McCoy), shunned by all because she's from a working-class family and her parents are divorced. Soon, her Fairy God-Phallus (Michael Irish, in pink shirt and pink phallic hat) transports her to the Kingdom of Do, where she encounters any number of strange beings. After winning a Heisman Trophy and the Super Bowl, Poona gains fame as a commercial spokesman and is even excused from committing murder. "You're a sports hero," she's told, "so you're allowed to kill" - a not-so-veiled reference to O.J. Simpson. With her pigtails and pink bows, black nose and freckles (whiskers), spiked collar, pink shirts and miniskirt, McCoy is a winsome, sympathetic Poona -but unlike Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz," the character is a catchall personality that doesn't really represent any one thing.  It's the "Other Plays" that prove more rewarding, serving up some of this staging's most pointed barbs, but in too scattershot a format to have any cumulative effect. When the almighty TV (Erika Tai), crowned King of Do, sees her approval ratings slipping, she brushes it off by saying, "I can't be distracted by the issues" and, when she survives a man-made disaster, remarks "I'm mass media - it's gonna take a lot more than a nuclear holocaust to get rid of me." There's also the crass, sleazy, fast-talking Man Who Could Sell Anything (Ryan Boyd), who insists, correctly, that "people want things they don't need." He offers Poona a $1 million-per-minute salary to sell a product that kills children. She balks. His comeback: "Kids are just statistics."

Purring "it's only a game," a Computer (Karen Harris) teaches an A student (Abby Miner) the ins and outs of cybercrime, including mass murder, until the girl becomes inured to violence. Though potent, the sequence seems out of place with the free-for-all nature of "Poona."

 Through 40 characters, each of the 11 cast members has his or her moments. Given some of the funniest material, the chameleon-like Irish is consistently amazing, giving his characters such distinctive flavor, you'd be hard-pressed to recognize the actor   beneath. Such is the occasional magic of live theater, superceding the other supernatural doings seen in "Poona."

 Copyright 2004 The Orange County Register