Theater review: ‘Action Movie: The Play’ at The Magnetic Theatre

JOYOUS BUFFOONERY WITH BARBS: Action Movie: The Play isn't all sight gags and slapstick. The high-energy production brings clever costuming, adventure film high jinks and flashes of irreverent humor to the stage. Photo by Rodney Smith/Tempus Fugit Design

Two men battle with chainsaws on top of speeding cars, there’s a brawl on the wing of a flying jet, an action hero clings by her fingers to the edge of a skyscraper and an alligator swallows a kung fu fighter alive.

That’s the improbable mission The Magnetic Theatre co-artistic director Andrew Gall has assigned himself and a zany crew of acrobat-dancer-actors in Action Movie: The Play, now running through Sunday, March 31.

The movies have CGI, green screen and other optical wizardry to create special effects. Gall and his collaborators make magic from the simplest theatrical tricks: giant puppets, scenery turned topsy-turvy, strobe lights and stagehands whose black garments say, “We’re invisible.”

Most of all, Action Movie: The Play harnesses that peculiar effect known as willing suspension of disbelief. Indeed, the opening night audience happily let go of all credulity to embrace this monster mashup of James Bond villains and X-Men superheroes, with a Vitameatavegamin mix of Chan (Jackie), Bruces (Lee and Willis), Seagal, Norris, Van Damme and Schwarzenegger.

There is a plot of sorts, sliced and diced from our favorite summer blockbusters. Evil corporate villain Kreeger (played by Michael Yow) seeks the power-giving Paper Weight of Syfan to achieve world domination. His nemesis, the sinister wheelchair-bound Dr. Xylene (Yow again), assembles a team of justice fighters to thwart him: cynical cop Jack Jackson (Daniel Moore), Vietnam vet Stone Hardgod (Jered Shults), Cyborg Woman (Samantha LeBrocq), Kung Fu Guy (Christopher Linn) and computer nerd Alec Smarty (Zoey Laird).

But plot is clearly not the point. The hellzapoppin, perpetual-motion paces that Gall and his fight director (Shults again) put their nimble performers through keep this script aloft. The actors leap, roll, tumble, somersault, pounce, hammer, slam into walls and each other, and mix more martial arts than a binge of Ultimate Fighting Championship productions.

LeBrocq also serves as choreographer and piles on hilarity with dance interludes that are a weird (and delightful) amalgam of “Soul Train” and Bollywood films. LeBrocq designed the clever costumes as well, and gives herself a wonderfully lewd accessory to muscle her way into Kreeger’s lair. She’s a triple threat.

Sound designer Rodney Smith assembles a movie-worthy soundtrack that both propels and glues together the momentum.

Action Movie: The Play isn’t all sight gags and slapstick. There are flashes of irreverent (and often scatological) verbal jokes. Two of this reviewer’s favorites: “It’s like trying to find a handicapped parking space at the Special Olympics,” and “Drugs don’t make you cool or popular, they just make you forget all your troubles and feel real good.” But the words often get muddled in the mayhem of those nonstop antics.

It may not have the subtlety and wit of “Saturday Night Live” sketches, which it resembles, but Action Movie: The Play, written by Chicago-based playwrights Joe Faust and Richard Ragsdale, is very much in the spirit of The Magnetic Theatre’s original satires, which are its hallmark and much loved by Asheville audiences.

WHAT: Action Movie: The Play
WHERE: The Magnetic Theatre, 375 Depot St., themagnetictheatre.org
WHEN: Through Sunday, March 31. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m. $22

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About Arnold Wengrow
Arnold Wengrow was the founding artistic director of the Theatre of the University of North Carolina at Asheville in 1970 and retired as professor emeritus of drama in 1998. He is the author of "The Designs of Santo Loquasto," published by the United States Institute for Theatre Technology.

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