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The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island (or, The Friends of Dr. Rushower)

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Jody Flader
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Can mom have been right? Can too many comic books rot your brain, stunt your imagination, and guide you down the road to a pointless platitudinous life, where your only joys can be derived from messily drawn characters living at a gleeful disconnect from reality? Maybe not, but The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island (or, the Friends of Dr. Rushower) sure can. Ironically, it's the drawings of cartoonist Ben Katchor that provide the only moments of delight - and the only semblance of art - in this interminable new musical at the Vineyard Theatre.

Katchor's colorful creations, aided by set and projection designers Jim Findlay and Jeff Sugg, depict off-angle Manhattan vistas, jungle landscapes, cramped interiors, and even cinematic pans and zooms through what looks like a dog's-eye view of human silliness. Katchor's actual people match the strangeness and friendliness of his locales, not quite natural but wearing big smiles that suggest there's nothing to fear from the oversized heads they're attached to.

What's never made clear is why the thoughtfulness and good-old-fashioned smarts those heads imply make no appearance in the show. The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island redefines how stage technology can (and perhaps should) be used, both with and without regard to actors, and might just be the most richly realized theatrical fantasy New York has seen since Radiant Baby opened at The Public in 2003.

That show, however, used its stage-filling animations only to support its points about the life and death of rebel artist Keith Haring. For Slug Bearers, they are the only point. This misplaced focus results in a musical that's every bit as brain-dead and tone-deaf as it is visually appealing, a show that's aimed so squarely at the unfeeling, the undiscerning, and the unlistening of the mid-20s set that it has no time left to be anything other than torture to anyone else.

Katchor's libretto concentrates on the age group's twin concerns of aimlessness and social consciousness with its story about GinGin (Jody Flader), a privileged but drifting 25-year-old woman who becomes so taken with the plight of the workers of faraway Kayrol Island that she can no longer live a normal life. The men of that colony, you see, spend day in and day out carrying four-ounce lead weights on their shoulders a backbreaking distance of 20 feet so the weights (or slugs) can be integrated into small plastic devices, like telephones and alarm clocks, that would otherwise be too light and blow away. But her whole life change when she meets a man named Immanuel Lubang (Bobby Steggert), who shares her concern - when he's not busy immersed in the "poetry" of those same products' instruction books.

A series of contrivances too hopelessly hokey to detail leads GinGin and Immanuel to a business trip of meaning on Kayrol Island, under the auspices of GinGin's humanitarian, electrolysis-delivering father Dr. Rushower (pronounced "rush hour" and played by Peter Friedman), and instead just say that a "poetry" reading is involved. I'll likewise spare you lengthy descriptions of the conspiracy theories surrounding the addictive Kayrol Cola, and the slug bearer (Matt Pearson) GinGin accidentally meets after he randomly dials her father's New York penthouse.

Not dwelling on any given aspect of the show is the best way to deal with all of them. This is especially true of Mark Mulcahy's music, which is the tonic equivalent of a seismometer, or perhaps San Francisco's Lombard Street: It's more concerned about the motion between notes than with the notes themselves, tunelessly oscillating about the scale with no recognizable respect for style, character, or intent. Practically nothing about Slug Bearers, from the writing and the staging (by Bob McGrath) to the choreography (by John Carrafa) and most of the performances, benefits from extended thought - or really, any thought at all.

But even as escapism, there are slim pickings here. This potentially whimsical confection can't support the weight of all the clever forced onto it and into it over such a protracted period of time - two hours of this, especially with Mulcahy's directionless and repetitive music behind every word (the show is, for no reason I could determine, through-sung), is way more than enough. And while the performers are appealing (particularly the fatherlike Friedman, who wears his eccentricity without affectation), they're all too normal to convincingly inhabit this world.

Ideally, the cast would be chock full of stars, uniquely outsized personalities who themselves resemble living cartoon figures, and can thus make us unable to tell where the drawings end and they begin. What it has are a solid group of actors trying to bring a third dimension to a universe that has use only for length and width, not depth. That's not enough to make this Slug Bearers great - or even bearable.

The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island (or, The Friends of Dr. Rushower)
Through March 2
Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15 Street
Tickets online: Vyneyard Theatre

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