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F8: A Rock Musical
Blackout Theatre at North 4th Arts Center

Also see Dean's reviews of Phoenix of The Rainmaker

It's always a little scary to go to a world premiere of any kind, especially one that is a rock musical written and composed by the same ensemble that is performing it. I'm happy to report that Blackout Theatre pulled this one off flawlessly. And it's a good play too.

Blackout Theatre is one of the younger theater groups in town, consisting mostly of former students from the University of New Mexico. They do a lot of improv, but also two or three scripted shows a year. Their unique version of Dickens' A Christmas Carol was one of the best things I saw on stage in 2011, and now they have done very well with an original piece.

The story is not totally new, but I like the way it is handled. F8 is set in a utopian/dystopian city of the not-so-distant future. The city is called F8. Everyone pronounces it "F eight," but you can also read it as if it were on a license plate. It is a place in which everything is predetermined for its inhabitants: when you can conceive children, whether the child will be a boy or a girl, what career your child will have, even when your child will break its leg.

Everyone is "chipped." They have a chip inserted in their neck that keeps them docile and satisfied. The chip notifies them when something is on sale, for example, so they can run to the store and buy it. Even though everything is controlled by the system (F8 seems to be both the city and the computers that run it), there is some small degree of liberalism: a gay couple is given permission to have a child by surrogate, outsiders are permitted to visit, etc. Almost everybody loves living in F8. Almost.

Of course, there is one character who feels trapped, and that is the crux of the story. Paige has been matched to Ted, the archetypal nice guy, and she has a good job and has just been given permission to conceive. But she is by blood a rebel, and even the chip in her neck can't overcome that, just as it can't overcome her lesbianism. Parker is the unchipped outsider who awakens this feeling in Paige, and what happens to the two of them and to Ted is the rest of the story. There are moments of comedy, uncomfortableness and, surprising pathos as the show progresses. It is clever, witty, sad and satisfying.

There are songs and dancing, too. I think F8 would work well as a straight play, and I'm not sure that the music adds all that much, but it certainly doesn't detract either. The sound is good, the singers enunciate, and the lyrics can be easily heard. The music, by a band playing behind a screen at the back of the stage, doesn't overwhelm the singers, and I would have liked even more background music apart from the songs themselves.

The sets by Josh Bien are multipurpose and easily maneuverable: it's a wall, turn it around and it's a kitchen from the 1950s—I like that even though the play is set in the future, the sets hearken back to that period of capitalist robotism. The costumes by Lila Martinez and lighting by Jeff Anderson are spot on. For the music, I suspect the whole band should get credit, but especially Chris Walsh. The dialogue and probably the lyrics appear to have been a communal effort; Heather Yeo is listed as the head writer, and she did a good job pulling it all together. Everything flows effortlessly and, for that, Barney Lopez, the director, deserves applause.

Amanda Machon as Paige is a standout, partly because she has the most prominent role, but mainly because she's really good at acting and singing the part. Lauren Poole, Leonard Madrid, Ericka Olvera, Heather Yeo, Nathan Simpson, and Shannon Flynn are also part of this talented group.

I think of Albuquerque as a big town instead of a city, and it always surprises me that we have theater troupes like Blackout here. I would have thought that all the talented people would have lit out for the really big cities right after college. I'm awfully glad that some of them have decided to stay.

F8: A Rock Musical, created and performed by Blackout Theatre, is being presented at the North 4th Theater, 4904 Fourth St. NW in Albuquerque, through May 20, 2012. Info at blackouttheatre.com.

--Dean Yannias



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