Sunday, March 29, 2009

Optimus for President

Fourth Wall’s ‘OPTIMUS PRIME FOR PRESIDENT’ a winner!

On the surface, ‘OPTIMUS PRIME FOR PRESIDENT,’ by Clevelander Margi Herwald Zitelli, appears to be an absurd comedy, maybe even a farce, about a group of people who are meeting in their favorite bar after a Cleveland Indians baseball game. They are co-joined season ticket holders who are “friends.” The quotes are important. They are friends who talk a lot, tease and taunt each other, but avoid sharing their real selves with each other. They can’t approach truth, they talk about fantasy. Fantasy, such as whether Optimus Prime would make the best President.

Optimus Prime, a cartoon character, is the commander of the Autobots, a faction of heroic Transformers from the planet Cybertron who wage their battles against the evil forces of the Decepticons for control of their home world, and by extension, peace in the universe. He is a heroic, brave and compassionate character who puts all his talent to use to improve the world around him. Sounds like a perfect candidate!

But why are these people talking about Optimus, baseball, Great Lakes beer, and smurfs, when there are real issues they face? One has a terminal illness, a fact she has failed to share with her “friends.” Another, a doctor, spends long hours at the hospital rather than going home to his wife. Another is about to marry a woman who he doesn’t love, but is marrying seemingly because he can’t think of what else to do with his life. And, so it goes. They share none of the realities with the people they have supposedly bonded to. They escape from authenticity by covering up with meaningless debates, sarcastic interactions, feigning macho fights, and living out the Peter Principle of not wanting to grow up and face the realities of life.

We find out about each of these individuals through the clever writing device of having each transition from the present day and fade into the spot light of elementary school where they read an essay about what they want to be when they grow up. Their future wish fantasies turn out to be not only revealing, but generally are no more realistic than their present day lives.

Herwald Zitelli has a knack for developing complete characters. We know what is motivating each, allowing the actors to give faithful portrayals. This is a very difficult task, but she does it well. She also has a good ear for realistic language.

The Fourth Wall cast (Joshua Brown, Aubrey-Krisen Fisher, Shawn Galligan, Stuart Hoffman, Sarah Kunchik and Nathan Miller), is excellent. There is not a weak link in the acting chain. They are well directed by Jenna Messina, who received the “2007 Best Actress” award in the Times Theatre Tributes listings. She is as good a director as an actress. The show is well paced, the laugh lines clearly keyed, and the emotional scenes kept in realistic control.

Considering that Fourth Wall performs in a space literally made of walls of black plastic sheets, and lights with only 5 spots, and works on a budget that would qualify them for food stamps, the production is amazing.

A suggestion: it would be nice if the program included such information as the setting, the time, the number of acts and would identify the technical people. Eliminating some of the excessive details in the extended personal bios, would also add to a more professional air to the goings-on.

Capsule judgement: Margi Herwald Zitelli’s fine script, ’OPTIMUS PRIME FOR PRESIDENT,’ gets an excellent production at Fourth Wall under the keen direction of Jenna Messina and a performance by a fine cast.