Strange things are afoot at the Xenodrome. I'm not talking about George Carlin stepping out of a tricked-up phone booth to help Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter pass their history finals, though the link between the goofball 1989 movie Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure and recent goings-on at the Potrero performance dive certainly suggest otherwise.
Keanu's legacy looms large over Point Break Live!, a most excellent theatrical spoof of Kathryn Bigelow's 1991 film about a Los Angeles cop who goes undercover to infiltrate a gang of adrenaline-junkie surfing bank robbers. Never mind that the shoestring budget puts hiring Reeves — who starred in the film as FBI agent Johnny Utah — beyond the reach of the show's producer, New Rock Theater. While the plucky theatergoer selected at the start of each performance by audience applause to fill in for Reeves may not necessarily possess the star's cheekbones or surfer's physique, he (or she) will very likely turn in at least as convincing a performance.
The conceit of casting a volunteer in Reeves' role is undeniably effective. Anyone who has seen Point Break — or, indeed, sat through most of Reeves' canon to date — will understand why the live version's audience participation gambit makes such a splash. With the possible exception of his turn as Don John in Kenneth Branagh's 1993 screen adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, it's hard to think of a more wooden performance in the actor's mixed bag of a career. As such, there's brilliant logic to the idea of putting an unsuspecting civilian with little if any acting experience — and, likely no prior knowledge of how the live version works — in this mediocre yet endearing actor's wetsuit for the evening. For both the audience member suddenly thrust into the limelight in neoprene and the rest of us sitting expectantly in plastic rain ponchos (thoughtfully provided to protect us from showers of water and worse), Point Break Live! turns out to be a wild ride.
Like Bigelow's movie, Point Break Live! hyperventilates. Familiarity with the film isn't mandatory, but it certainly helps us keep up with the hectic pace, not to mention grasp the rationale behind the serving of meatball sandwiches during intermission. (The snack plays a pivotal role in the movie; some filmgoers attest to having trouble differentiating between the sandwich and Keanu by the end.) The actors are so amped that they hardly ever stand still. As gonzo surfer Roach, Paul Leafstedt in particular seems to have lost control of his limbs. The rest of the Bermuda-shorts-clad surfers behave like a bunch of baby chimps on speed, slathering sun lotion on each other's torsos, fondling audience members, and waving guns about. The actors have a tendency to get overexcited, garbling their lines and shouting over each other in the drive to re-create action movie dynamics onstage. When Jamie Mayne's ditzy blonde production assistant, sporting a purple sports bra, gray shorts, kneepads, and terrierlike force, suddenly transforms herself into Utah's stunt double (think Olivia Newton-John in Xanadu meets dog whisperer Cesar Milian), her bank robber ass-kicking antics unfortunately get drowned in the tsunamilike melee.
Yet it's impossible not to get swept up in Point Break Live!'s glorious chaos. The show's high-octane energy offers some insight into why it has done well in New York, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles since first being conceived in Seattle by Jaime Kelly and Jamie Hook in 2003. Ingenious ways of staging some of the film's key moments abound. Kevin Vasconcellos' animation sequence projected on a theater wall illustrates a wild car chase; an explosion at a gas station bursts before our eyes in a cataclysmic live fire-breathing display; directors Thomas Blake, George Spielvogel, and Eve Hars even manage to pull off the movie's skydiving scene with daredevil aplomb, using a couple of dodgy-looking harnesses, a handful of party poppers, and a silver-sprayed bathtub. And when the idiotic surfer bums suddenly don masks and morph into a gang of dangerous, bank-robbing criminals, the intensity of their assault takes us completely by surprise. We do as we're told: hit the floor, hand over our cash and cower. In short, Point Break Live! keeps us on our toes.
I imagine that my adrenaline rush paled in comparison to that of Dana Long, the theatergoer charged with playing Utah the evening I attended when the production was at the Xenodrome (it has since relocated to Fat City in SOMA). The audience selected Long from a group of five self-appointed auditionees. We were impressed by his manly delivery of the line "Hi, my name is Johnny Utah" and superior jumping-jack skills. Just like Reeves' lovable yet naive character paddling out to sea for the first time on an amateurish surfboard, Long seemingly had little idea what he was getting himself into. Let's just say that reading lines off cue cards was the least of his challenges. Despite lacking a surfer's six-pack and being forced to ride the waves on a child-sized ironing board, he delivered a heroic performance. I don't know whether I'd eaten one too many meatball sandwiches, but there was something bodaciously Reevesian about him, in fact.
"We love you, Keanu, because you make it look so easy," says Sharon Rylander's Bigelow at the start of the show. It's a tongue-in-cheek statement, as anyone who has played FBI agent Johnny Utah onstage or onscreen will know.