Mutt: Let’s All Talk About Race! (Berkeley)
“Satire,” American Theatre icon George S. Kaufman is quoted as saying, “is what closes Saturday night.” Well, the folks at Impact Theatre in Berkeley are proving Mr. Kaufman wrong by extending their run of “Mutt: Let’s All Talk About Race!” through June 15. Written by Christopher Chen and directed by Evren Odcikin, this co-production with Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company is a blisteringly satirical look at all things racial through the prism of American politics.
The 2016 Presidential campaign is just around the corner, and the Republican Party is desperate. They tried the “woman” thing via Sarah Palin with disastrous results, and their failure to attract any significant portion of the minority vote spells doom for the next go-round. Their consultant-provided solution is to nominate a candidate that crosses racial boundaries and tows the party line. After tossing aside their first “perfect candidate” (who supports all the ‘right’ policies but refuses to disown his love for Milli Vanilli), they happen upon the ultimate in demographic satisfaction – the indeterminately named Len Smith. Mr. Smith’s ancestors’ sexual proclivities allow him to trace his heritage through every nation known to man, and he’s a war hero to boot. Not only can every ethnic group claim him as one of their own, he’s shot a lot of people in the face.
After being dumped, their original candidate soon realizes that deep down he’s really a Democrat. Who wouldn’t want to be a Democrat? They always seem to be so happy. So after a meeting with some Democratic Party strategists, the 2016 race is set.
Meanwhile, there’s a serial killer on the loose whose racial identity seems to be in question. Native American? Aztec? African-American? Each eyewitness seems to have their own take on the racial background of the suspect. Profiling is Chen’s target here and the reason for one witness’s ID-ing of the suspect as black leads to the most gut-punching laugh of the evening.
Any discerning theatre-goer should figure out how these two disparate plot-threads come together by the play’s end, which is set at the first Presidential debate. The show ends somewhat abruptly, and one gets the feeling that Chen hasn’t yet figured out how to end this piece, but no matter. The 108 minutes of strong, biting satire that precedes the final two minutes more than make up for the weak conclusion.
Lest you think that “Mutt…” is just another Berkeley-based paean to liberalism, be assured that Chen’s satirical shotgun knows no party affiliation. Democrats are skewered just as gleefully as Republicans. While the right wing is portrayed as a bunch of blubbering babies who just don’t understand why minorities hate them, the Democrats are embodied by two representatives of the party establishment – one whose entire vocabulary consists of just two words – Middle Class! Middle Class! – and another whose initial negotiating ploy is to immediately concede.
Other targets include blowhard cable news anchors and their vacuous panels of experts (and no, it’s not Fox News this time), psychotherapy, white guilt, “sustainability”, cell phone usage, single-issue activists, and the rampant hypocrisy of all. If this all sounds pretty highfalutin to ya, don’t worry. Chen even works a sustained fart joke into his script.
Good thing the joke is accomplished through sound design as the theatre space itself (the basement of a pizzeria) is quite cramped. Accordingly, the set design is minimal (a few chairs and tables) and lighting is limited by a low ceiling – so low you have to stoop to take your seats in some rows.
All that leaves this show to succeed with is a terrific script (minus the ending), imaginative direction, and energetic performances. Chen‘s script has infinitely more hits than misses in the humor department. Odcikin’s direction keeps things moving at a fast pace and the show actually seemed shorter than its two-hour running time. All characters are portrayed by a tight-knit ensemble of six performers – Patricia Austin, Michael Uy Kelly, Matthew Lai, Marilet Martinez, Lawrence Radecker and Michelle Talgarowe. While they may only be visually differentiated with the quick addition of a badly-fit wig or overcoat, the actors imbue each character with distinct personalities and the laughs are earned from all.
By far the wittiest treatise on race to come down the pike in a long time, Christopher Chen’s “Mutt: Let’s All Talk About Race!” will make you laugh repeatedly at the absurdity of it all. He offers no solutions to the “problem” of race (beyond humanity banging itself into racial oblivion) and challenges the notion that “race” is really even the issue – a serious question to be raised amongst a bit of theatrical insanity. “Mutt…” is well worth a trip into the bowels of a Berkeley pizzeria.
Mutt: Let’s All Talk About Race!
An Impact Theatre and Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company Co-Production
through June 15
Evenings Thurs, Fri, Sat @ 8pm Sun @ 7pm
La Val’s Subterranean
1834 Euclid Ave
Berkeley, CA 94709
Photos by Cheshire Isaacs