The Factory Theater knows that sometimes we need to escape from the heaviness of the world, and producing a play like The Adventures of Spirit Force Five seemed like the pep rally we needed. The program contains a director’s note by Spenser Davis highlighting the inspiration for this show: the spirit of the 90’s. Saturday morning cartoons, bright music, and brighter colors of millenial youth where everything looked spun from sugar and anything was possible. As a 90’s kid fatigued by the brutal Nationalist landscape where families are torn apart, children are in cages, and there seems like no way out, I was thirsty for it. These shows and movies raised us to be our own heroes and well, we just need a reminder of how to do that every once in awhile to keep up the fight.
The pre-show music was a mix CD of 90’s pump up songs like “Be My Lover” by the Spice Girls and “Good Vibrations” by Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch. I was ready for a play that was going to leave me entertained but also energized and refreshed for the battle raging outside. Water bottles and dancing ribbons were unceremoniously placed in the corners just outside of the raised, central, playing space which instantly was reminiscent of a high school pep rally in anticipation of the spread of mighty cheer.
Unmasked and visible to all, was an anthropomorphic tree sleeping in the corner like those in a forgotten, suburban McDonald’s PlayPlace ready to engage with children itching for imaginative play. Technicolor spanish moss, which also looked like discarded pompoms, draped her branches. Overall, the set by Devon Green (assisted by Therese Ritchie), with its grassy-painted floor and tree trunk corners, seemed transposed from a VHS sing-along tape. A high school gym wall-painting of a centaur with an “FTHS” cutie mark interrupts this 90’s glenn… perhaps a reminder of high school creativity: Anything is possible but reality jarringly creeps in. At least, that’s the impression I had until the play began.
The Adventures of Spirit Force Five has a lot of sugar, but no spice. And certainly not everything was nice…
The play flies past at 65 minutes with no intermission and is so inundated with references to our favorite films and shows and quotes that the plot is entirely lost in one-liners. One-liners that are only funny without the context of the story… so maybe it was helpful that this play’s story was disportionately minimal compared to the energy filling the stage. The play relied heavily on the audience’s own knowledge of the classic hero arc to fill in the major gaps in plot and stake. There was no character development, but a lot of saying that there was character development. This includes a red herring of a Coach-to-teammate “Let’s talk,” but instead of witnessing that growth, focus was transported to a completely different moment while that was happening. One that neither paralleled or exposited on the moment that we weren’t witnessing. And that conversation, whatever it was, was immediately followed by the teenagers following Coach K at every turn with no decisions of their own. The fight choreography by Maureen Yasko and Chris Smith was creative in translating cheerleading into combat, but the major action sequences happened so simultaneously and cramped that there was no compositional focus in the fights, sadly allowing the audience to catch wide open knaps. I’m not sure if this need for speed was a directorial misstep or an attempt to speed us through this mess of a script. It all felt as if the play had to be only 65 minutes long and therefore suffered for it.
There was a happy town of gnomes named Lametown (or a whole realm named “Lej?” this was unclear), which was invaded by Lady Mauron and her goobers. She stole a phallic weapon from a tree and thus ruled over Lame Town until a mysterious man with glowing blue balls steals the weapon. Simultaneously in another plane, a group of cheerleaders practices for the state competition. The plot unfolds in mysterious disappearances, a boy scout, a mall psychic, and a forest in Lametown. It flies by nonsensically, and there are more holes than plot.
And the villain, Lady Mauron (Elise Marie Davis), is a woman who constantly masturbates: the masturbation stimulated an evil force in her vagina that controlled and harmed her subjects. This was confusing to me because self-love is natural and healthy, but for some reason it was being portrayed as negative, bad, or shameful and something to laugh at. Either way, for some reason she wants to destroy Lame Town and to do so she takes one phallus, the Spirit Stick, from the femme tree whose only lines throughout the play are crass tree/wood/penis puns.
And let’s talk about how this Spirit Stick is a weapon: whoever holds it is pressed into some dark part of their personality. Layla (Abby Blankenship) who is confident about her appearance becomes vain and self pleasuring (again, how is self-love a bad or shameful thing?), Gilda (Stephanie Shum) who has an insatiable desire for self-improvement suddenly becomes gluttonous enough to eat a tree (It’s mentioned at some point that she’s an environmentalist?), and Garin (Joshua Servantez), their Boy Scout tagalong becomes exceedingly aggressive. wishful part of me wanted to believe that this last plot point might have been an attempt to comment on masculinity, but alas the rest of the play did not support that. The effect of this Stick implies that confidence, desire, and compassion are bad things. It is a device that paints femme pleasure and expression as a bad or dangerous weapon, an irresponsible message at best.
Now this play wants to paint Flora, the cheerleading captain is the “Chosen One” in the hero’s arc, but this again is another unfulfilled arc. Also, Flora and her teammates never actually come face-to-face with Mauron and are instead tasked with putting the Spirit Stick back into the Spirit Tree. In fact, Mauron is defeated by Coach K, a man with literal blue balls.
That’s right, a woman whose super powers are based in her own pleasure and anatomy can only be defeated by a man with blue balls when she no longer has a Spirit Dick- excuse me, “Spirit Stick.” There had to be more to this, I thought, Mauron and the girls hadn’t met yet: maybe she’s the one to teach them about self love, discipline, and confidence! But no! The play was suddenly over.
That says something. Even if the playwright meant for it to say nothing, it actually says a lot. The Adventures of Spirit Force Five was one of the most misogynistic plays I’ve seen in awhile.
The excellent performances, design, and directorial choices implied there was more to this story. I left lacking emotional stakes, growth, lesson, and purpose from this script by Jill Oliver. The distance I felt may have been due to the overwhelming and unexpected misogyny: without a reversal, those kinds of jokes only punch down, and the play ends up only saying something negative.
The Factory’s mission is painted all over this piece: “The Factory Theater delivers unexpected, unapologetic theatrical experiences through original works forged and assembled by our shameless ensemble.” The ensemble for this production is stacked with heavy hitters; everyone gives fun performances, shamelessly playing hard and fast with the Saturday-morning cartoon and/or 90’s teen comedy energy. They’re nostalgic and unapologetic. Notable performances include Kevin Alves as Coach K; Abby Blankenship as Layla; Stephanie Shum as Gilda; and Charlie Irving, Tommy Bullington, Brittney Brown, and Eric Thomas Roach as an ensemble of Smurf-like gnomes and Putty Patrol-like “goobers.” The lights by Claire Sangster certainly made this theatrical experience magical with glowing trees that changed color throughout for locational and evocative purposes. The props (also by Green) were delightfully campy with many hilarious surprises and details, like an @Properties umbrella in the middle of a fantasy forest (this review is not sponsored by @Properties) or a stirrupped throne which enabled “vag-ions” (vaginal visions… for the play’s villain). And everything is tied together by the direction of Spenser Davis — every transitional trope from the Golden Age of Television was joyfully present.
Ultimately there were a lot of sweet, sweet elements about the show, but candy does not make a meal. Overall, this play could have used several more drafts and some sort of narrative focus and drive. If you want to see a play where the main objective is to fit in as many fratty one-liners and references as possible, then this might be a play for you. The play in the end proved itself to be thoughtless, misogynistic fluff in really awesome, excellently made packaging.
Spirit Force Five runs at the Factory Theater through August 11th.
Bias Alert: I am a Latinx Feminist who happens to have a vagina. I also know and are friends with several folx on the creative team and in the cast.
Playwright/Song/Lyrics/Dance Choreographer – Jill Oliver
Director – Spenser Davis
Photos by Michael Courier
Flora – Carmen Molina
Gilda – Stephanie Shum
Layla – Abby Blankenship
Garin – Joshua Servantez
Coach K – Kevin Alves
Lady Mauron – Elise Marie Davis
Lolahdy – Jill Oliver
Captain – Eric Thomas Roach
Spirit Tree (voice) – Corrbette Pasko
Ensemble – Charlie Irving, Tommy Bullington, Brittney Brown
Asst. Director – Kim Boler
Stage Manager – Rose Hamill
Scenic/Props Designer – Devon Green
Lighting Designer – Claire Sangster
Sound Designer – Eric Backus
Costume Designer – Rachel Sypniewski
Puppet Designer – Jill Frederickson
Musical Director – Laura McKenzie
Fight Choreographer – Maureen Yasko / Chris Smith
Original Music by Eric Backus and Jill Oliver