The Midtown International Theatre Festival
The biggest problem with Kate Gersten’s floppy celebrity-worship satire, EXPOSED! The Curious Case of Shiloh and Zahara, is the production’s unfortunate timing. Coming on the heels of the death of Michael Jackson last month and the 23-ring circus that continues to accompany it (was he murdered? will his kids cry? who will get custody of them?), this look at America’s infatuation with the famous feels distinctly old-hat. While watching its lead characters, two daughters (one by birth, one by adoption) of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, whine about their sorry lot, you can’t help but agree with the ancient saying that truth really is stranger than fiction.
Gersten attempts to fuse reality and fantasy by setting the majority of her play in 2029, when people have stopped having children and thus need something else to obsess over, and tossing in several characters with notable status in our world today: Christopher Walken, Al Pacino, Carmen Electra, and Suri Cruise among them. This does give her story the appropriate mixed-salad feeling of a too-small Hollywood, where everyone knows, spreads rumors about, and probably sleeps with everyone else. The athletic, blonde, and semi-slutty Shiloh (Gersten herself) and the more conservative Zahara (Kelly McCreary) have every reason to feel out of place.
As the pair blandly copes with Shiloh’s fear of the outside world (she was, at least allegedly, committed a few years earlier) the latter’s innate sense of activism and perpetual datelessness, they fend off annoyance from their friend Duggan (Yang Miller) and the terrifying-sounding activities of their next-door neighbor, Bianca (Kelly Hutchinson), whose sexual and retaliative exploits make the title duo look sane in comparison. There’s something staunchly voyeuristic about watching their troubles, their fading dreams (Shiloh is a stock market expert who also bakes a mean cookie), and their hopes for the future from behind doors that, because of their parentage, must always remain closed.
And that’s the problem with EXPOSED!: By dwelling so much on these name-brand folks and their ridiculous doings, social messages of any significance are usually more side-effects than notable events. Gersten even resorts to a lengthy nightmare sequence, in which she all but spells out her point while trading on easily recognizable symbols of beauty and surface-deep success, which suggests that even she has nothing more potent to say than “Celebrities are people, too, and I’m going to put even more of them onstage to prove it.” That makes it even more difficult to listen to everyone else’s complaints about not being taken seriously.
No, they’re all pawns, and the actors generally treat them as such, infusing everyone with the appropriate vapidity, but little more. (Bjorn Thorstad’s double-duty as Walken and Pacino, the latter literally rising from the depths of Hell à la The Devil’s Advocate, is highly amusing, however.) Only Hutchinson manages to find real humanity beneath her character’s artifice - it helps that she’s playing the only one who undergoes a noticeable change, which gives her more room to maneuver - the pretty, perky Gersten and the spunky McCreary, though onstage almost the entire time, don’t have the same opportunities in their roles.
At least director Dan Fogler, best known for his Tony-winning performance as William Barfee in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, has delivered an elaborate production. Large and surprising set pieces, a rich puppet supporting cast (including an adorable ice cream-loving alien), and extensive video work thrust you into the characters’ uncertain, 24-frames-per-second reality, and succeed in making it seem like a terrible place to grow up.
But because the play is all style over substance, even the cleverest of Fogler’s staging techniques doesn’t impart much in the way of new information or even a heretofore unheard point of view. The extent to which you’ll enjoy this show depends entirely on your patience for this kind of glitter-dust parody. If you’re the type to laugh at, or be reduced to deep thought by, a drunken beachcomber slurring out the show’s theme statement, “I’ll shee that when I believe it, folksh,” to cover a costume change, you should immediately move EXPOSED! to the top of your theatregoing A list.
Exposed! The Curious Case of Shiloh and Zahara