ATF: A Burlesque
Annex Theatre, 1916 Fourth Ave, 728-0933. Thurs-Sat at 8, Sun at 7; $12. Through Nov 4.

MY WEBSTER'S Dictionary has a few definitions of "burlesque." Here are two of them: (1) any broadly comic or satirical imitation; parody; (2) a sort of vaudeville characterized by low comedy, striptease acts, etc. ATF (named for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) doesn't have a striptease act, but that's about the only thing it doesn't have. What it does have is the following (take a deep breath): a rock band; a gang of clowns; an angel-winged guy who flies down through a hole in the ceiling (he also, excruciatingly, plays a banjo); a pissed-off blond bartender in a cheap red dress who snarls "Drinks!" like she's about to go at you with a cleaver; a top-hatted MC with his shirt open to his navel; a guy with sock suspenders painted to his legs; a multi-episode mini melodrama; three-part-harmony singing; a breakdance; a feminist critique, by women in the show, of the roles of women in the show; gun shots; spit; an office bureau with a bottomless drawer; WTO, Janet Reno, and Paul Schell jokes; simulated sex (both homo and hetero, oral and genital); sirens, police helmets, and riot shields; people swinging from ropes (athletically, as in the new Charlie's Angels, rather than suicidally); and a couple of explosions. Have I left anything out? Yes. This show is exhausting.

I mean that in a good way. Annex Theatre is relentlessly high energy, and one of the niches it has carved for itself (in addition to being one of the longest-lived small theaters in town) is as a place that gives new, short, often experimental acts a place to play. Their late-night cabaret, Spin the Bottle, has kept nocturnal theatergoers in stitches for almost three years. The year before last the company mounted a holiday compendium of short works that included everything from sketch comedy and improv to pseudo-Victorian shadow puppetry, mock lectures, and song and dance. These cabaret formats allow for a mix of terrific and not so terrific acts. If, of the six or eight pieces you see, you really like two or three of them, it doesn't much matter that there are also a couple of duds. Maybe more importantly, the cabaret format frees the creators from trying to impose some kind of artificial through line.

ATF, written by Tom Wisely with Paul Budraitis, Bret Fetzer, and the ensemble, has a sort of plot in which a greedy guy, Oscar Amazing (played with malevolence and slime by John Shores), decides to make money off of alcohol, tobacco, and firearms and enlists four silly-shoed, red-nosed clowns to help him. Each of the clowns--Ron Darling as Fritz Courageous, Ben Laurence as Sighable Finely, Chris Macdonald as Mump, and Kaiyana Rain as Spanky LaTouche--does an amazing job of conveying a particular character in a largely unspeaking role. Rain is especially brilliant as a clueless, eager innocent (she's also the one who does the breakdancing).

Interspersed throughout this story is a soap opera melodrama, in which Dad is a drunk, Mom is whiny and pathetic, and Tommy (played by the multi-talented Paul Budraitis) is a teenager who has to deal with it all. Interspersed throughout both stories are some talking head videos purporting to be TV news commentaries, excerpts from the ATF Waco trial, and a mock trial in which the players are grilled about this production. Annex has done a lot of this stuff before--fragmentation, TV news and video culture, play-about-the-play. While these po-mo fads have had and still can have valid functions, in this production they seemed like merely okay ideas that should have been axed before opening night.

This production is just too long. It's trying to do too many things. There's an odd tension between its wanting to be a cabaret-type thing or more story-based. There's a similar tension between sheer silliness and some kind of serious satire about the government and the ATF. In the second half, two actors refer to having worked on the show for 10 months; I can only imagine that after working 10 months on this inventive, wildly funny thing, the folks involved would have a hard time cutting stuff. But if the subplot and the self-referential, artsy-theory stuff were dropped, this would be completely wonderful, as opposed to just mostly wonderful, entertainment.