Entertainment » Theatre

Paradise Street

by Adam Brinklow
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Dec 6, 2016
Paradise Street

It's the holidays and we're feeling daring, so why not: A Christmas play by Clive Barker.

In "Paradise Street" at the EXIT Theatre, Barker channels a little Tom Stoppard into this 1981 ensemble piece about a time traveling Queen Elizabeth (the first one) visiting 20th century England on a mission to get pregnant.

We did say a LITTLE Tom Stoppard...

The titular street lies in Liverpool, an avenue that in the real world has a three-sentence Wikipedia entry that mentions its Apple Store and Urban Outfitters.

But apparently it was once a down-and-out place, mostly demolished in an urban renewal scheme but populated by a voluminous cast of colorful everyday people and their equally voluminous accents.

We brace ourselves every time American actors saddle up to imitate British Isles vernacular, but actually the dialects in this Stuart Bousel-helmed show sound surprisingly and disarmingly authentic.

Which turns out to be a bit of a problem too, since authentic Irish and Scots can sound borderline unintelligible to our stupid Yankee ears. Bit of a Catch 22.

(Oddly, not a single Liverpool accent lives on this Liverpool street. Maybe no one in the cast wanted to risk sounding like Ringo Starr.)

On Christmas Eve in this demolished alley, wandering madman Mulrooney (a bravara Phil Wong) insists to anyone who'll listen that a miracle is nigh.

Apparently this is the sort of thing he says all the time, but tonight he just happens to be right. In fact, a troupe of 17th century actors led by Jacobean playwright Ben Jonson (Steve Westdahl) are already wandering the alleys and lamenting the 20th century's lack of culture.

But it's a while yet before the strange and amazing things present themselves in full. Mostly "Paradise Street" concerns itself with ordinary (if oddball) people.

There's Quinn, a theoretically lovable loser whose house is the only one left standing (Kyle Mcreddie); Caroline, his perhaps too accommodating wife (Jeunee Simon); and Bonner (Salt Lake City actor David Bohnet), Quinn's belligerent serviceman brother who blows into town looking like a homicidal Freddie Mercury.

There are really more characters than we can talk about, including an ostensibly trained baboon on a leash. It's that kind of story.

Elizabeth eventually manifests (played by Christine Augello), an aging icon with an oddly mechanical demeanor, a longshoreman's sense of humor and a vaguely defined plan to change the world through time travel, VD tests, and a grand plan that's kind of an inverse "Back To The Future."

Geez, did you get all that?

Barker himself said that "Paradise Street" was "neither a great failure nor a notable success." He might have been a little hard on himself, because 35 years on this play turns out to be quite notable, and maybe better suited for 2016.

True, it has few pretenses about making sense. It's not just that the plot is outlandish but more that the conflicts don't all really seem to want to share the stage and would probably prefer to split off into separate dramas.

But the themes about toxic masculinity, sympathy through loneliness, regretting things you had every opportunity to change, and the desperate, compassionate, frustrated desire to shake people until their stupid conflicts fall out couldn't be more alive than they are today.

Bousel and his huge cast don't let themselves get tripped up on the show's many touchstones but play it just mad and breezy enough that everything feels natural in spite of itself.

And the script is extraordinarily witty, the kind of show you could just close your eyes and listen to for hours. (Although you'd miss out on Mary Naughton's intentionally ramshackle set that way.)

"Paradise Street" also feels a bit dated now, but in a good way, conveying a whiff of punkish disgruntlement with Thatcher-era England into the 21st century. Like a photograph of a particular psychological moment that has passed, but left marks you can see to this day.

"Paradise Street" plays through December 17 at the EXIT Theatre, 156 Eddy Street in San Francisco. For tickets and information, call 717-979-7122 or visit www.theexit.org.

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