If ever there was a stage/film writer whose work defies easy categorization, it’s John Patrick Shanley.  Films like Moonstruck and Joe And The Volcano are fanciful, quirky romances. Recent Shanley plays like Doubt and Defiance are straight-forward albeit complex looks at the “closed societies” of the convent and the military.  Earlier theatrical works run the gamut from the dark romantic eroticism of Danny And The Deep Blue Sea to the bizarre surrealism of The Dreamer Examines His Pillow and Beggars In The House Of Plenty. 


Then there’s The Big Funk, which has its surreal moments yet remains for the most part stubbornly romantic and optimistic.  If Shanley at his most surreal has me asking the playwright (in the words of one of the characters in The Big Funk) “Are you bein’ obscure or am I dim?”, at least in the case of The Big Funk, the romance and humor outweigh the obscure, making the play a powerful, funny, sometimes perplexing, but ultimately satisfying experience, especially in a production as fine as the one being reviewed here.

68 Cent Crew’s Ronnie Marmo and his talented, daring company of actors have undertaken the enormous challenge of presenting thirteen John Patrick Shanley plays over the coming few months, each program pairing a brief one-act with a longer full-length play. Opening “Series A,” The Big Funk is being performed with another fanciful Shanley concoction, Down And Out, both featuring a combination of truly fine acting and direction, making them must-sees for Shanley fans.

Down And Out features Bryan Callen as a character known only as “Poet” and Jennifer Blanc as “Love,” a man and a woman who live in an all-too-topical world of cutbacks. As if “six days of water and beans” weren’t already enough, a third character (called Figure and played by Les Feltmate) makes several visits, the first to take away Poet’s library card, meaning that Shakespeare and Keats will no longer be part of his life.  Worse still is that the pencil Poet is awaiting delivery of still hasn’t arrived, and this means that he can’t write. “I’m sorry I ever wrote a poem,” he declares abjectly. “I’ve failed and no one wants my poetry.”

Still, in the world Shanley has created in Down And Out (and also in The Big Funk), hope springs eternal.

Down And Out is a sweetly lyrical, ultimately joyous bit of fancy written with bursts of quirky humor.  Under Michael Rooker’s fine direction, Blanc, Callen, and Feltmate give winning performances, the playlet providing just the right opening for its two-act companion piece.

The Big Funk opens with a series of monologs by three of the play’s four main characters, each actor speaking directly to and sometimes standing among the audience.  First up is Jill (Mercedes Manning), feisty and intense, a self-destructive young woman wounded by a childhood of abuse and mistrustful of strangers.  Fifi (Grace Shen), a fighter behind her gentle exterior, is a former circus performer whose hostile mother and “weak but crafty” father so screwed her up that she no longer knows the meaning of love. Her husband Omar (Paul Yoo) is a tough guy, a dreamer, and a professional knife-thrower, whose praise-stingy parents left him with a hole where his heart should be.

Omar informs us that he is going to tell us a story which takes place in the past and is soon joined by Austin (Paul McGee), an unemployed yet eternally optimistic, idealistic young actor whose presence in the play will have a profound effect on his fellow characters, particularly on Jill.

One evening at a party, Jill meets Gregory (James Mendoza), a handsome stranger with an untraceable European accent, who points out a family size jar of Vaseline petroleum jelly on the table between them. Declaring Jill “a little dull,” he tells her, “I think you want to get a little shiny.  A little greasy,” and proceeds to cover her face, hair, and arms with Vaseline. 

Yes, we are most definitely in Shanley country here, the grease seeming to symbolize the ugliness that Jill feels both inside and outside herself, the mood of the scene at once oddly comic and deeply tragic. 

Fear not, however, for Austin, he of the open face and somehow unscarred soul, is there to, both figuratively and literally, wash the grease away.

Both Manning and McGee give powerful, brave performances (each character requires some full frontal nudity from its portrayer). I love the intensity and volatility that Manning brings to Jill and the sweetness and sincerity of McGee’s Austin.  Yoo and Shen, likewise, enter completely into Shanley’s world, bringing charm, humor, and depth to their characters.  Mendoza makes the most of his one scene as Gregory, revealing the inner cruelty the character hides under his debonair exterior.

Recent LADCC scenic design nominee and 2008 Ovation Award winner Danny Cistone directs The Big Funk with flair and understanding. Serving also as design supervisor for the entire 13 By Shanley series, Cistone has created for The Big Funk a circus-themed set with posters announcing “The Magnificent Marksman” (“You won’t believe your eyes”) and Fifi’s “Death Defying Feats,” a large round wooden target that turns into a hinged table top, and carnival lights suspended from above. Neda Pourang, who is designing and supervising costumes for all thirteen plays, has concocted some great ones here, from Fifi’s tightrope walker flared skirt to Jill’s sexy red mini-dress. Bruce Barker’s sound design adds to the circus feel.  

13 By Shanley features three weekly programs, each with a short one-act paired with a full length play, one program playing Tuesdays and Wednesdays, another on Thursdays and Fridays, and a third on Saturdays and Sundays.  There are two series, A and B, which play on alternate weeks.  A seventh program runs every Saturday at 2:00 p.m. The short play Let’s Go Out Into The Starry Night, directed by Joe Mantegna, opens two separate programs.

Not every Shanley play may be for you. Some of them aren’t for me.  Given my druthers, I’d probably rather see a more linear, straight-forward play than The Big Funk.  Still, the play (and to a somewhat lesser extent its companion piece) won me over with its wonderful performances and ultimately optimistic outlook on life. I look forward to catching more of 13 By Shanley during its three-month run at Theatre 68 and recommend that you do too.

Theatre 68, 5419 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
March 18, 2009

Comments are closed.