Even the original Saturday Night Live didn't enjoy the luxury of love at first sight. The first time that fat bee's antennae flopped over its face, it was hard to find the humor. Drugs helped. And a cliquish sense of being "in," laughing at coded punch lines that the casual channel clicker, reared on Carson, couldn't comprehend.
Maybe in a year or two, with a chance to hone the material week after week, Patti Smithsonian's sketch comedy and her explorations in surrealism would catch on, having trained an audience in the vocabulary of her live animation fantasy. Until then, it helps to tank up on champagne and settle into your seat with a spirit of uncommon generosity.
The evening's first act consists of two unrelated sketches, which the extensive explanatory program notes -- a foreboding attempt at creating a "user's guide" to the production -- identifies as examples of magic realism. Smithsonian defines the genre as a style in which "a somewhat believable scene suddenly takes a bend into fantasy in order to more accurately portray the mythic or subconscious underpinning of the scene."
Those familiar with magical realism may find much to quibble with in these scenes. The seamless blending of the improbable and the fantastic within a realistic world are upstaged by the sketches' more jarring "sudden bends," turning magic into an intrusive and conspicuous interruption rather than the transformative imaginative stretch accomplished through a brick-faced natural telling. But let's not quibble. For one brief act, we can allow an artist the opportunity to redefine the terms to meet her own sensibilities, as long as it's understood that we are witnessing a reinterpretation of the form, an inventive tweaking that is by no means definitive.
No matter what frame you put around it, the first act of Dream Caf is a painful foray into bad sketch comedy. A one-sentence plot description tells you everything there is to tell about "The Craftslady." The host of "The Lillian Gillian Show" demonstrates to her audience how to spruce up old shoes, scrap lumber, and kitchen items by covering them with flowers while some kind of reptilian, mutant ninja-esque creature lurks beneath the surface of her stage. "Inquire Within" features a quirky, socially-challenged job applicant who brings her best friend -- an "insect-American" -- to the interview in her pocket. The latter scene offers promise with Smithsonian's interpretative bug dance and her summoning of the Great Mantis, but it never fully takes flight, merely taunting the audience who might be tempted to forego the second act if they are expecting more of the same.
The second act, however, is the show's centerpiece, the extended adventure into surrealism titled "Dream Caf." The inconsequential filler of the first act is replaced with the careful crafting of another world in the title piece. The caf's menu -- featuring snakes in the toilet bowl, luminescent trees, and lurking shadowy figures -- whets the appetite for a feast of fantasy. Smithsonian makes the most of her resources, tripping through the lead character's subconscious with the help of Karen Felber's and Vicky Manchester's puppeted flights into flashback and fantasy, Bob Tudor's evocative musical score, and Tom Studer's breathtaking versatility as the waiter, a one-man house of mirrors who doubles and triples himself as he takes on any number of characters from his customer's inner psyche and repressed past.
Smithsonian's character is suitably static, a somewhat passive participant in her own mind games, while Studer's dynamic shape-shifting leaps within the moment create the atmosphere and uncontrolled quality of the dream journey. Among the stand-outs in the puppet zone are a cigar-smoking, beer-bellied father figure, the wistful wide-eyed protagonist, and a larger-than-life Buddha woman who gives new meaning to the term "re-membering." The scene's improvisational interludes are rough and unprofessional, accenting the recurring gap between vision and execution, and the play too often relies on the unsubstantiated belief that the obtuse is the pathway to the profound.
You can't see theater like this on any other stage in town, and that bold spirit of exploration and experimentation is praiseworthy even when the product suffers the endemic pitfalls of its own aspiration.