With Paradise Park, Charles Mee settles on a medium-sized solution: an amusement park. The show’s new production at Peter Norton Space, the final entry in Signature Theatre Company’s season devoted to Mee, proves, that’s still not enough space. An entity the size of the world’s sole remaining superpower, especially as seen from the perspective of the cogs trapped within it, calls for the breadth of sea to shining sea, not of the cotton candy machine to the photo booth.
Drowning your troubles in a water-gun clown head game or losing yourself on a roller coaster might sound like fun ways of dealing with grief. But entertainment for salve’s sake, argues Mee, just loads the fruitcake cannon with more ammo that starts off delicious but leaves a bitter aftertaste. So it’s not surprising that most of the people who’ve shut themselves inside Paradise Park haven’t come that far toward solving the problems that brought them there in the first place.
Nancy (Veanne Cox) and Morton (Christopher McCann) came with their teenage daughter Darling (Vanessa Aspillaga) to suppress their guilt over the other daughter they (literally) lost. Edgar (Alan Semok) has trouble making real friends, but hits it off with a wooden dummy named Mortimer he finds in a trash can. Vikram (Satya Bhabha) wanted to escape poverty, so has taken a job as a tour leader forever hiding behind a head-to-toe mouse costume.
If hardly poor from a metaphorical standpoint, these individual items do not naturally lend itself to Mee’s usual brand of theatrical collage. Mee’s other two Signature outings this season, Iphigenia 2.0 and Queens Boulevard (the musical), had tighter stylistic constraints, which made their blendings of pop culture with pop theatre smoother and more sensible. Here, though, the combination of new playwriting with song, dance, and found material is always uneasy, as if the malaise-filled melting pot that is America is its own best justification.
How square dances conducted with key cast members in tap shoes, heavy dollops of accordion playing and shaky video projections, and inflatable castles inspiring the appearance of an actual “earth angel” for a friendless girl fit into this is never made clear. Director Daniel Fish has created a production that’s as varied as the United States, with whimsical sets (by David Zinn), costumes (Kaye Voyce) , and lighting (by Mark Barton). But when cast members start drowning in seas of inflatable Supermen dolls or sing an endless version of “Home on the Range” from offstage, unpredictability quickly stops being a virtue.
Certain cast members counter this with portrayals that transcend the forced weirdness around them: Cox’s always-on-the-edge Nancy is only a variation on the actress’s usual neurotic characterizations, but a pleasing one; and Aspillaga finds an astonishing amount of innocence in the tormented Darling. And, yes, Semok’s ventriloquism, adds some comic spice to the scenes in which he uses it.
But all this contributes very little to Mee’s intended examination of the American Dream that’s become a nightmare for those unable to deal with it directly. Paradise Park spends a lot of time showing how it takes all kinds of people to constitute a family - and a country. It expends considerably less effort rationalizing why either is important in the first place.