Cocktails at the Centre of the Earth, written and directed by Simon Astor at Annex Theatre
I attended a performance of Cocktails at the Centre of the Earth on February 4, 2012. I was excited to see this play because it had been well-hyped by Annex (it ran as the mainstage production before the late night Lewis & Clark) and I knew some of the actors and designers. It was a large cast, including several characters who were only one or two “scenes” (each scene was an act that ran about 15-20 minutes, based on the location of the – well, I’ll explain more in a moment), including dancers/singers/auxiliary characters and a 4-piece band. They used up the entire stage space, which was a good thing. Annex is tiny, but Cocktails made the space feel huge, even though there were over 100 people in the room that night (audience + actors + staff).
All of the technical elements really fell into place. The sound was delivered well, especially considering there were several types of media to consider: live voice, microphones, and instruments with and without amplification. The costumes were superb. Cocktails is set in an alternate steam-punk Victorian era, which the costume designer evoked even through minor costume props like goggles and note-taking wrist bands. Every character’s demeanor ranged from lavish to rough, but everyone was always sexy and dapper. Daniel Engine (the robotic man) was painted silver to great effect, and the talking fox – who unfortunately was only stage for moments but talked about for ages – had phenomenal face make-up. Other characters ranged from sparkly to velveteen. It really drew me into the universe Astor created.
Underneath, something felt lacking. Perhaps it was the repetition: repetition of character types, joke styles, musical phrases, and scenes. Or maybe it was that even though it was intended to be a fun and fluffy piece, it still had no core conflict, except that this group of socialites, et al. were looking for a place to sit down and have a drink. And maybe that is a conflict in and of itself, but I wanted more of each story line. Each plot felt too short.
One thought I’ve had is that it’s tough to write a fully developed short scene (10-15 minutes) when a good portion of that scene is taken up by a musical number and talking about said musical number. The music certainly infused a fun mood into the entire evening of theatre, but no song furthered the plot. Astor described his play as a “play with music,” not a musical. In a musical, every song means something, it forwards the story. Perhaps if Astor had taken that approach, the audience could have known more about the characters and their motivations, their stakes. Instead, there was no room for subtlety. With 23 characters played by 18 actors, everything had to be laid out from the very top of the scene. I just wished they had focused on exploring the core of their desires instead of getting to the core of the Earth.