Theater Review - A novel idea

How long is Twinhead Theatre’s Whatever: An American Odyssey in Eight Acts? Long enough to take place over four nights, so that at the end of each evening’s performance the cast offers a live, TV-style preview of the following installment.

Beginning in 1994, playwright Heather Woodbury developed the one-woman show as a kind of stage novel that strives for Charles Dickens’ social observations and sprawling cast of characters. Atlanta’s Twinhead Theatre has adapted Whatever for five actors who play the dozens of disparate roles under the direction of Deisha Oliver. Based on the first evening’s performance, Whatever proves smart and ambitious, but also drawn-out and demanding of its audience.

Whatever’s main characters include young West Coast ravers Clove (playful, magenta-haired Barbara Tushbant) and Skeeter (James Yates), a crack-addled Hell’s Kitchen prostitute named Bushie (Kristi DeVille), gabby New Yawk octogenarian Violet (also played by DeVille) and possibly the ghost of Kurt Cobain.

Whatever still displays its origins as a one-actor show, with at least half the material (in acts one and two) unfolding as either monologues or one-sided conversations. Woodbury seems more excited by the bohemian slang of different generations than constructing a snappily paced plot, as Whatever attempts to map America’s entire countercultural underground, from Jazz Age activists to New Age witches.

Twinhead’s production imaginatively uses a video screen for some scenes, including a funny broadcast reminiscent of MTV’s “Total Request Live,” but long speeches on video don’t engage the audience. Moments of actual conversation prove more crisp, like Bushie’s encounter at a Laundromat with an old friend, a former prostitute turned born again Christian, or Skeeter taking a ride from a gabby aging hippie (Diana Brown) while hitchhiking across country.

Whatever’s young cast work hard to give their characters colorful physical and vocal details, and their bits of comedy frequently pay off. But more serious, poignant moments often elude the actors. DeVille gets big laughs as Bushie, but makes Violet merely a grating actor’s exercise.

One can’t fully judge Whatever based on one-fourth of the show, and doubtless part of its pleasures involve watching the disparate plot threads pull together. That requires more of a time investment than most audiences may want to give, despite Whatever’s bid to be live theater’s answer to the Great American Novel. Twinhead Theatre presents Whatever July 15-18 at the Top Shelf Space of Dad’s Garage Theatre, 280 Elizabeth St. Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m.; Sun. 5 p.m. $12. The entire eight-act play will be staged in its entirety July 25 at Eyedrum, 290 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. beginning at 1 p.m. $10. 404-587-2566.