CERTAIN KINDS OF success in art depend on engaging a certain sort of broad, inarguable concept. Find an idea that encompasses and defuses potential criticism, present it in support of the most broadly accepted truisms, and you're halfway to a critics' darling and--in those art forms that depend on a specialized audience partial to the medium in question--a potential cult hit. Ballyhoo, the 2000 Fringe Festival smash receiving a second run at Open Circle Theater, panders to its audience in such an exquisite fashion that one not only doesn't mind, but actually stops and seriously questions whether or not that is part of the point. Wrapped within this mystery, this enigma, and this riddle is someone either asking you to dance or giving you the finger.

Here's the plot: In the far-flung future, the world is a dystopia featuring chemical storms, searing sun rays, and trees that bloom two days a year. Mankind places its hopes on cleverly named government programs and self-emasculating consumerism. Acting as consumer agents and law officers are the Friendly Joes, who are opposed in covert fashion by the terrorist Bellboys, people with the rudimentary self-awareness necessary to recognize society's more dehumanizing aspects. Creator-composers John Osebold and Michael McQuilken, who make up the band Player King, perform Ballyhoo as a series of vignettes exploring various characters occupying key roles in this society, interspersed with direct performances from the assaultive media that controls and directs their lives. Both performers possess fine voices and move well on stage. Ballyhoo always entertains, even when an audience may find it difficult to keep up with the merely adequate sound system and hard-to-follow transitions.

Ballyhoo works well as a straightforward crowd-pleaser. Osebold and McQuilken use lightning-quick dialogue and rhythmic speech to replicate modern media's insistent, omnipresent voice. Each performer moves mercury-like between a half-dozen characters to define a world of funny, touching individuals in pain. The show's climax, when Osebold and McQuilken give up on the piped-in music and take instruments in hand, ties both themes into a tight, pretty bow: The performers have reasserted themselves as individuals, and have forsaken the soulless rhythms of the machine for the risks and rewards of person-to-person contact. Taken this way, Ballyhoo fulfills science fiction's aim to comment on the here and now through extrapolation and exaggeration. In the end, human interaction trumps any soulless organizing principle.

As the authors of such incredibly intricate verbal and physical stageplay, Osebold and McQuilken seem much too clever to wholeheartedly embrace a simplistic resolution. Thankfully, more complex and rewarding explorations of theme can be derived from such dissonant elements as Ballyhoo's limited technology, bland characters, and outmoded forms of expression. Ballyhoo spends as much time forcing the audience to fight to stay in the narrative as it does catering to its own appetite for wordplay and humor. The music turns assaultive, the characters at times become impossible to differentiate, and the proposed future seems mired in the Douglas Adams-style wordplay of three decades gone by. By throwing obtuse but significant obstacles in their path, Osebold and McQuilken force the audience into the role of the agitated, captive consumer, full and willing participants in the act of consumption and, one supposes, their own eventual downfall.

Presenting a criticism of consumer culture through an act of consumption is the kind of bold conceptual leap that yields interesting ideas, whether or not the authors intend them. Just as a single moment in performance carries with it any number of individual, even conflicting, motivations, so does each and every economic transaction, even debased ones like the consumption of the suspiciously blue "new water" in Ballyhoo's projected future. Putting their show on stage, Osebold and McQuilken could be accused of loading the argument in their favor. After all, theater is an art form dependent on human interaction. But instead, Ballyhoo's marriage of form and theme underscores the inescapable humanity of commerce and the inevitable commercialization of art. Osebold and McQuilken's elemental themes aren't simplistic, they're morally urgent and prescriptive. Ballyhoo asks that both art and commerce be judged by their attendant humanity, making its sometimes-apocalyptic future utopian after all.

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