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RIDE THE CYCLONE: Empty State Theatre's Latest Production is a Wild Ride, Indeed

Sometimes, even the internet fails us. Also, spoilers abound - be warned!



One of the things I miss from the "before times" was traveling for work. It could get to be a little much (there was at least one year where I spent more nights in hotels than I did in my own bed!), but the upside was that I had the chance to take in all kinds of theatre in the various places that I travelled to, especially Seattle. And it was on one such trip that I first saw a production of Ride the Cyclone at ACT (A Contemporary Theatre), just a short walk down Pike Street from my usual hotel with my favorite restaurant in the world, Daawat Grill & Bar, conveniently located right at the halfway point of the journey.



The show has an oddly morbid premise, but it's funny as hell: 6 kids from a high school choir in Uranium, Saskatchewan board the Cyclone at a questionable amusement park and a catastrophic malfunction leaves them spinning off into the afterlife. They find themselves talking to The Amazing Karnak, one of those coin-operated amusements that one often finds at carnivals and fairgrounds. He is able to predict the precise date and time of anyone's death - including his own, which is set to happen in about 90 minutes when a rat will chew through his power cord - and he has also been tasked with presenting these 6 teenagers with a choice: he has the power to return one of them to life. Who will live and how they will be chosen is what transpires over the raucous 90 minutes of the show's duration.


This is the Karnak stage piece from the production I watched, and to this day, I'm not sure if it was just a prop and the voice was pre-recorded or delivered off stage, or if the actor was actually in this. The movements were very mechanical...but also weirdly beautiful, like a very precise dancer.


There have been significant revisions to the show over the years, and while most of the Empty State's production was familiar to me, there were at least a few changes I noted...from what I could recall, anyway. I used the Internet Archive to try and find my review of that show, but it doesn't seem to appear on any of the indexed pages that I looked at. Sometimes even the internet fails us.


What hasn't changed, however, is the show's wicked humor, taking what is a very dark premise of the death of 6 teenagers (including Jane Doe, a unknown girl with no memories of her life whose head was never recovered after the accident) and serves up a biting and hilarious look at how the teenagers viewed their own lives, the town they lived in, and what it means to have lived well.



The first one to plead their case is Ocean O'Connell Rosenberg (Kylie Gifford) who, thinking that Karnak is the one making the decision, sings a song all about her superiority. She's got the best grades, the best career prospects, and the best array of life experiences - including nailing both her confirmation and her bat mitzvah the same week, while not violating her Buddhist beliefs. She's a resume-padder through and through, and she's convinced that this is going to win her a trip back to the land of the living until Karnak announces that the grand prize winner will be chosen by unanimous vote.


Immediately she starts back-pedaling in the way that popular bullies do when they've been caught in their shenanigans, and Gifford plays this self-absorbed little social nightmare to perfection. She's smarmy and quick with her back-handed compliments, only occasionally breaking the façade when she's not getting the attention she feels she deserves. Perfection.



Noel Gruber (Matt Dunham) is the overly dramatic gay kid from a small town who imagines their life as a tragic mix of vice and sex - despite having never taken a drink or so much as kissed another boy. Dunham does a great job creating this ball of nerves and side-eye and shade. His song, "Noel's Lament", features some admittedly questionable drag and a strong Cabaret flavor, and while it's darkly hilarious, his longing to have the tragic life of a wartime European prostitute doesn't do much to convince the others that he should be the one to live.



Adopted Ukrainian transplant Mischa (Otto Leider) doesn't make a strong case for himself either, choosing to showcase his hip hop skills while relishing in a little toxic masculinity, but his character is more complex than he seems, transitioning from the blustery rap into a more poignant remembrance of his internet fiancé back in Ukraine, "Talia" (with local theatre fave Gina Uhlir making a delightful cameo via video clips projected on the stage). Throughout the show, Mischa has other moments where he sets down the bravado and surprises his peers with his responses to their strange predicament, and Leider brings a sweetness to the role that is charming without spilling over into cloying.



Things get strange when it's Ricky's turn to share. Ricky (Logan Ruby) suffered from mutism due to trauma (in this version of the script, that is - there has been some controversy over the years with the character and how his disabilities have been portrayed and by whom) but has regained his speech in the afterlife where he reveals that he was raised by his elderly grandparents and his worldview has largely been shaped by the comic books that he loves. Rather than pleading his case for another chance at life, he sings about being a "Space Age Bachelor Man" with the rest of the cast transforming into horny cat-like alien space travelers who need him to save their universe...and maybe get a little sexy sexy time in along the way! It's a wild song that is a laugh-out-loud funny from start to finish; Ruby nails the performance as do the rest of the cast in their feline finest.



All of this hilarity is meant to soften you up for Jane Doe's performance. Karnak did not read her fortune before the children boarded the ride, and since her head was never found and her body never claimed, no one really knows who she is. Brenna Mathiason brings a perfectly balanced mix of monstrous and sad to the role of Jane. The character arrives in the afterlife clutching a headless doll and a starkly powdered face, the implication being that she has used the doll's head to replace her own. She clomps stiffly around the stage like Frankenstin's creation, saying off-putting things to Ocean and Constance (more on her in a minute!), and she's very much a part of the weird, dark comedy that happens until it's her turn to sing.



"The Ballad of Jane Doe" reveals that Jane is just as clueless about who she is as the rest of the students. She doesn't remember who she is or where she came from, and she fears that her soul may be missing along with her unrecovered head. Mathiason does a phenomenal job of keeping the character consistent, so that the real transition is with us, the audience: what seemed creepy before is now tragic, and we have a newfound sympathy for this ghoulish little girl that previously made us chuckle with her lumbering awkwardness.


After the ballad is done, the other students, led by Ocean in one of her only truly selfless acts so far, organize a small birthday party for her, singing to her and trying to make her feel special. Ricky even suggests that since she doesn't know her name, she might choose one of her own, and offers up one of his favorites: Savannah.



The camaraderie doesn't last long, however, as downtrodden "Yes Man" Constance Blackwood (AnneMarie Madeline Brack), perpetually in Ocean's shadow, finally decides to assert herself and declare her annoyance with a well-executed boob punch. She is tired of Ocean scripting their improv performances as well as their relationship. She reveals that she lost her virginity in a portable toilet to a carnie just hours before strapping in to the ill-fated Cyclone, mostly just to "get it over with" but also as an act that seems equal parts self-loathing and defiance of others' expectations. Brack is a phenomenal vocalist, and they bring a lot of power to their showcase number; as the last of the students to plead their case and the show's penultimate number, "Jawbreaker/Sugar Cloud" is all about Blackwood's conflicted feelings about life and about the town she grew up in. She reveals that as much as she despised her parents and the small town life they doomed her to, she discovered a new appreciation for them, for loving what you have, as she was flying through the air. It's a sweet sentiment that the authors wisely packaged with some winking cheesiness to cut the sugar, and Brack relishes in the quirky number.


I'm not going to give away who gets the grand prize; while the final resolution isn't a huge shocker, the way that it's handled is really well done and I think you'll find that everyone's final moments are satisfying. The one thing that I did find a little disappointing was that in this version of the script, Karnak's death is much less a part of the show. They present it at the beginning, but in the Seattle production that I saw, Karnak's impending death was used to drive the plot: if characters got too caught up in their own personal conflicts, he would remind them of his death (and that if he dies before a decision is made, then no one gets to live). It was used to track the time of the show, it gave the show a bit of tension that I think heightened the experience. Daniel Dutot provided the voice of Karnak and did a great job, but the other production made Karnak feel more integrated into the show and I think that's a stronger choice.



In terms of the technical aspects, I think that this show is a fantastic example of how you can do minimal staging and still create an immersive space. The Karnak amusement is such an anchor to the show, and their set piece looks great. It looks like it could have come straight off of the boardwalk at some rundown county fair. The fabric back wall is used for projection that is perfectly integrated, using real childhood pictures from the cast to create that "life flashing before your eyes before death" sort of experience. And instead of just leaving the rest of the set bare, with maybe a couple of set pieces on wheels that come on and off, they created useful spaces that give visual interest, give the cast something to interact with, etc. Would I have loved for them to have been more carnival-themed to go with the county fair purgatory theme? Absolutely, but it still gave me something. It created levels and options for the staging, and it doesn't feel generic or plunked. This is a lesson for people who want or need minimal staging; we live in a world that often necessitates shared spaces, especially for community arts which everyone claims to love but that love doesn't always translate into support or funding. You can be minimal, modular, and moveable without sacrificing a full, coherent visual story and engaging space.


Amy Lyste did another fabulous job with the costumes for this show. The base costumes are pretty simple, mostly uniforms, but the quirky moments like Noel's lingerie-clad backup dancers and Ricky's cat-stronauts (yes bitch, that is now officially a word!) are sheer perfection. I especially loved Jane Doe's ethereal dress with that creepy doll prop. Gorgeous.


The Empire has notorious problems with sound, and there were definitely moments where the music tracks overpowered the performers, but overall I was able to follow the whole show with minimal problems. I know that canned music is just the reality of a lot of theatre these days; musicians are expensive, and it's that many more schedules to coordinate for rehearsals and performance dates. But if you're going to use the tracks, you have to find that balance to make sure your performers can still shine, and I was pleased that they were mostly successful in that regard.



As of this writing, there are still three more chances for you to see this show, and I really think you should. It's dark and funny; I haven't laughed this much at a show in a long time. The cast do an amazing job; they embody their characters with wonderful nuance and surprising character touches, but as an ensemble they surrender to the story being told and support their featured castmate and allow them to have their shining moment.


Some productions are just meant to entertain you, some are meant to teach you a lesson, and some are meant to move you. I was delighted to find that this production was crafted in such a way that it does all three, and I'm excited to see what else Empty State Theatre brings to the stage. Whatever they choose to present in the future, I'm sure it will be quite the ride.


Post-Script:


In the production I saw in Seattle, they did an amazing crane stunt with "The Ballad of Jane Doe" that was spectacular to watch. I found a recording of it, so I just had to share. I promise, the Empty State version is just as good, even without a crane!




Photos of the production were sourced from the Empty State Theatre facebook page - follow them to find out about upcoming productions and auditions. I'm not sure how long it will be available, but for now you can read the virtual program with cast bios HERE.



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