Theater Review: “The Interrobangers” — The Aliens Dun It?
By David Greenham
This version of the script may be overreaching, but there is promise in M Sloth Levine’s attempt to infuse gender and personal soul-searching into a spooky ‘cartoon’ mystery.
The Interrobangers by M Sloth Levine. Directed by Josh Glenn-Kayden. Scenic design by Danielle DeLaFuente, costume design by E. Rosser, lighting design by Elmer Martinez, sound design by Anna Drummond, projection design by Maria Servellon, puppet design by Amanda Gibson. Produced by Company One Theatre in partnership with the Boston Public Library and The Theater Offensive at Rabb Hall, Boston Public Library, Central Branch, Boylston Street, through February 24.
All is not well in the woodsy, rural upstate New York community of Foggy Bluffs. Elias Jenkins was found dead and mutilated in the woods nearby, and young Zodiac DuMaurier (Anderson Sinson, III) is missing. The town’s all-business mayor Tess Mason (Chris Everett) and scattered-brained Sheriff Craig (Michael J. Blunt) know something pretty strange is going on. But who or what is behind it? Some local business dealings, a wild animal, or a mysterious lab that may or may not exist?
When Zodiac suddenly returns after a two-week absence, he adds a fourth possibility: he insists that he and his dog Hoover (a puppet manipulated Jupiter Lê) were abducted by aliens.
While Sheriff Craig bumbles his way through his investigation, Zodiac’s school-aged pals decide they will investigate as well. Led by self-confident class president Dani Bundy (Schanaya Barrows), the quartet — Zodiac, football jock Hank Mason (Jay Connolly), who is also the mayor’s son, and skeptical realist Luna Jaffe (Jenine Florence Jacinto) — commences its own investigation into the mystery.
The script has clearly been inspired by the hi-jinks of Scooby-Doo and the gang on Saturday morning cartoons (in my youth) as well as the 2002 live-action film version whose campy antics have become popular. There’s even a goofy van, created by Hank Mason, that is called The Interrobanger, named for the interrobang symbol (an exclamation point superimposed over a question mark), which also happens to be a tattoo on Zodiac’s arm.
The kids start their investigation at Roswell’s Thrift and Find, a curiosity shop that leans towards the occult. The goofy proprietor, Betty Roswell (also played by Chris Everett), claims that she, too, was once abducted by aliens. She is marketing the experience by selling souvenirs related to abduction and the mystery of whether aliens really exist.
Not surprisingly, given the activist mission of Company One, the quest for clues as well as the solution to Jenkins’ death also digs into social issues — especially the identity, gender, and sexual orientation of the young team of detectives. At one point, Luna, a non-binary individual, notes that “I’m a human. There’s more to being a human than being a boy or a girl.” For Hank, there’s a tension between his jock persona and the way he feels inside. “I don’t think all of my pieces fit together,” he confesses.
In terms of staging, The Interrobangers is hemmed in by the limited dimensions of the BPL’s Rabb Lecture Hall performance space. Danielle DeLaFutente’s set — a greenish and grey curtain that spans the stage between a proscenium filled with wonderfully spooky old growth trees — is terrific. It sets the appropriate tone for a Scooby-Doo inspired mystery. But the various set pieces — the store, a café, the mayor’s office, and the titular van — are crammed awkwardly upstage. The other technical elements are effective, but they are not sufficiently in line with a design theme that seems to want to reflect the technicolor pop of the Scooby-Doo source material.
More challenging, however, is the script itself. This is the first full production of a play that has already seen some previous development, but more work is obviously needed. Playwright M Sloth Levine is nothing if not ambitious; the problem is that it sometimes feels as if two different plays have been layered on top of each other. Luna gets at the conflict between the two texts in the second act of the show: “I’m learning there’s an interplay between being queer and believing in magic.”
The production, which runs two hours with an intermission, toys with being a fun adolescent mystery, but then attempts to treat the Scooby-Doo character-types as if they were real people. The reach for depth, including the inclusion of ‘important’ conversations, amid the silliness too often comes off as forced.
Part of the staging’s limitations lies with Josh Glenn-Kayden’s direction. At times the action is rushed, and at other times it feels as if the dramatic stakes aren’t high enough. He uses the aisles to extend the narrow apron of acting space at the edge of the stage, but that intimacy doesn’t keep up the production’s energy when the characters dig into ‘heavy’ issues of growing and discovering.
Also, the earnest acting company is not always believable. As Zodiac, Anderson Stinson, III frequently seems adrift because the character’s motives aren’t clear. Jay Connolly’s Hank is reduced to struggling with his identity; you question whether he was ever mechanical enough to build a van. As Dani, Schanaya Barrows is engaging, but her character’s place in the play’s socially significant side is fuzzy. Only Jenine Florence Jacinto’s Luna, the brains of the mystery quest, has a firm grasp of the significance of the character’s social issues.
Chris Everett does her best with the underdeveloped mayor/mom role, but she is quite amusing as the store owner Bettie, who’s just a little bit off in her own dimension. In some ways, Bettie’s backstory might be the most interesting mystery in The Interrobangers.
As the Sheriff and clerk at the restaurant, Michael J. Blunt’s character is mostly undefined; the mysterious figure played by Alex Jacobs comes off as a needlessly inexplicable enigma.
One high point: Jupiter Lê is magnificent handling of Amanda Gibson’s wonderfully designed dog, Hoover. As the play develops, Hoover’s role should be enhanced so that the animal can match the vim, vigor, and humor of the cartoon character that inspired his creation.
New work is challenging. M Sloth Levine may be overreaching in this version of the script, but there is promise in this attempt to infuse gender and personal soul-searching into a spooky ‘cartoon’ mystery. At this point, the two elements are compartmentalized rather than smoothly interwoven. The difficulty is that psychological introspection often goes on forever, but a satisfying fictional mystery demands a beginning, middle, and end. That’s particularly the case for the detective work of Scooby-Doo and friends; each romp was punctuated by some wrong-doing adult proclaiming, “… and I’d have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for these meddling kids and their dog!” The Interrobangers would benefit from some more dramaturgical meddling.
David Greenham is an adjunct lecturer on Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the former executive director of the Maine Arts Commission. He has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 30 years.