Until she becomes Pow's sex slave, Juli -- a dreamy young damsel who spends much of the first act skipping around a pastoral utopia, picking flowers, writing poetry, and fantasizing about strapping young deities disguised as stags appearing out of thin air to ravish gals like her -- is just a little bit god-struck. "Everything about the gods is better than how we live," she says rapturously to her sister, the more down-to-earth Ana. "They live on an ethereal plane of moral perfection, which takes material form as an idyllic land that is always peaceful, where the sun is always shining, where there is no cruelty, no suffering, no backbreaking work." Pow soon manages to change all that.
One Big Lie, in Crowded Fire Theater Company's world-premiere production, takes as its starting point humanity's masochistic propensity for self-delusion. Divided into three acts, each representing a different era -- "The Pastoral World" of ancient Greek myth, "The Mechanical World" of 1930s America, and an unspecified, dystopian future called "The Po-Mo Mo-Fo Freakshow World" -- the play explores the myriad ways in which humans suffer at the hands of oppressors, yet don't seem able to survive without believing the lies the despots sell them. Whether decimated by Pow and his ilk, pushed around by whip-cracking factory bosses, or tortured in prison by dictators, Juli (Juliet Tanner), Ana (Alexandra Creighton), and their brother, Arne (Adam Chipkin) -- symbols of the eternally downtrodden masses -- almost seem to thrive on maintaining the status quo. Even when a renegade god, Lu-Lu (Linda Jones), gets expelled from Parnassus/heaven/Paradise (or wherever it is that gods hang out) by her fellow deities for sympathizing with the humans' plight and attempts to incite humankind to revolt against the abusive gods, her speeches fall on deaf ears.
Artistic expression is often (some would argue always) motivated by a deep desire to bring about change, but political revolution has been a particularly prominent theme on Bay Area stages recently. From Shotgun Players' Les Justes and Guantánamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom at Brava to Brian Dennehy's stint in Trumbo and Traveling Jewish Theatre's Blood Relative, theater artists are finding all kinds of ways to comment on their profound dissatisfaction with the world today. Informed by the Gulf War, Sept. 11, and, more generally (as the program notes tell us), the "erosion of American democracy" and "the lies and abuses of power abroad and here in the newly dubbed Homeland," One Big Lie fits this trend. Optimistically fueled by the idea that humans might one day wake up from their delusional slumber, stop believing the lies they create for themselves, and recognize abuses of power for what they are, the production asks us to quit being so fascinated with false gods.
Therein lies (to borrow an aberration of an old cliché by Adams' malevolent god Mauvelous) the spanner in One Big Lie's ointment: Though hampered by its clunky narrative and the absence of a rhythm section to give the fairly nondescript musical score a bit of heat, the play is most memorable for its vivid performances, punchy dialogue, and smartass comedy. Any serious political message gets submerged beneath the colorful Mighty Aphrodite-like circus of a show.
For one thing, the deities are just too seductive to reject. Unlike the human characters, who wallow about in sackcloth-ragged misery making dull, heroic speeches about liberty and suffering, the gods hog the best lines, have the most fun, and wear the coolest duds. Even their names are tempting: "Mauvelous," "Pow," and "Cassoulay" make them sound like an exotic cross between comic superheroes and French country cuisine. Sashaying about in Jocelyn Leiser's magnificent, gaudy costumes, Cassie Beck (Cassoulay), Mollena Williams (Mauvelous), and Paul Lancour (Pow) dwarf everything around them. The modest Exit space, already cowed by the addition of a proscenium for this show, feels like it can barely contain all that celestial vigor. "Chaos is my tea and cake/ And Japanese anime/ I just can't get enough," whoops Cassoulay in bright orange knee-high boots, fishnet tights, and an effervescent froth of chiffon. How can the humans, "a bunch of weak, whining losers" by their own admission, compete with that?
They can't. Even characters like Lu-Lu and the Oracle, hovering between the realms of heaven and Earth, are attractive for their supernatural rather than their natural qualities. Lu-Lu (as played by Jones, a striking blonde in a tailored pantsuit who bears more than a passing resemblance to Carly Fiorina, the recently ousted CEO of Hewlett-Packard -- Silicon Valley's version of a "fallen god") is much more fun to watch when she's spouting unintelligible gibberish about trout under a curse inflicted by the other deities than when she's talking sense. And Alan Quismorio, as the truth-teller doomed to reveal things that people don't want to hear, is more compelling when scrunched into the lotus pose and belting out "I am the Oracle" slightly flatly to composer David Rhodes' dirgelike melody than he is reincarnated in Act 2 as a fast-talking hack called Joe.
In his book The Power of Myth, based on a six-part PBS television series, Joseph Campbell explained how humans all over the world are apt to create and propagate the themes of mythology. As he revealed, the same stories featuring different versions of the same gods play themselves out century after century across every civilization. In many ways One Big Lie illustrates Campbell's ideas. No matter how much we need to disassociate ourselves from gods, rulers, and celebrities of every kind, we're under their spell. Ultimately, we all want to get just a little bit god-fucked.