On the one hand, we have TV contestants on Fear Factor nuzzling hordes of rats or spiders. On the other hand, we have CBS flashing a quick peek at Janet Jackson's starboard mammary gland during the Super Bowl. And why? Because it's harder than ever to make a connection with a population that has grown inured to damn near every conventional stimulus. So let's try feeding hapless Survivor contestants camel testicles and see whether we can get Mr. & Mrs. Middle America to experience a faint shudder.
It's this monstrous level of human disconnection that is commented on with slashing wit in Charge, a co-production of Cleveland Public Theatre and TITLEWave Theatre. Playwright Eric Kaiser has created a splendidly absurd and twisted world in which people are confined to their rooms, since the toxic sky outside has morphed into a queasy greenish slime. The reason for this ecological disaster is never addressed ("Clear Skies Initiative"?); the story focuses instead on the reality-challenged coping techniques of one couple, George and Martha, and their robot servants, Gigi and Pierre.
Tucked in bed with virtual-reality goggles strapped to his head, George furiously finger-pops his computer keyboard like Jerry Lee Lewis on crack, playing serious head-surfing games with unseen opponents, the payoff being each other's amputated toes. Meanwhile, his wife lies next to him on the other side of a pile of remote controls and tries to add drama and poetry to her life by reprogramming her robots to put her in touch with suffering people -- at arm's length, of course. So the French maid, Gigi, is transformed into a ghetto sister and performs her designated role between periods of feeding her masters intravenously and servicing their colostomy bags.
This sounds gross, but it isn't; Kaiser's fiendishly up-tempo script never lingers for long on any one thought. The result is a hysterical theatrical maelstrom, augmented by the frequent appearance of a diseased beggar relentlessly selling Chiclets out of a briefcase. This over-the-top fantasy is tuned to the ideal level of manic intensity by director Greg Vovos, so that the 80-minute show never loses its frenetic appeal.
In a terrifically go-for-broke cast, Jill Levin and Kato Buss stand out -- or rather lie out -- as the mostly bedridden couple. Buss is a riot, whether he's lost in his gamesmanship, his head swaying like Stevie Wonder in mid-croon, or arguing with his wife about his next body-part bet. Levin's Martha obsesses about the visible veins on her face and is pleased with the coughing jags that remind her she's human. Marni Task and Joe Milan display dexterity as the adaptable androids, each dialing up dialects to deliver tragicomic mini-soliloquies. And as the beggar, androgynous Perren Hedderson looks and sounds like Pee Wee Herman on acid as he slithers around, his Chiclets always and incongruously at the ready.
In a world of dissociation, here's a show that connects at several levels simultaneously, leveraging plenty of visceral laughs from the ominous absurdities that surround us.