Theater Review - Animated mayhem

Playwright Steve Yockey puts the hurt in Cartoon violence

Actual bodies frequently turn up in the body of work by playwright Steve Yockey. In his short play Sleepy and other scripts, the former Creative Loafing contributor frequently presents intimate character sketches that can involve obsessive stalking, psychosexual kinks and outright bloodshed. His world premiere, Cartoon, directed by Adam Fristoe at Out of Hand Theater, follows the misadventures of a band of Saturday-morning-style characters, but ends with a body count worthy of Greek tragedy. Yockey explains how he brings out the real-world pain in exaggerated theatrical slapstick.

Can you tell me about your unusual writing routine?

Ever since my late teens I’ve had really bad insomnia, so I sleep about three to four hours a night — if that. I used to write while listening to music, then while listening to music with the TV on. Now I’ll have something on my headphones, something playing on the computer, and maybe the TV and radio on, too. It creates this wall of sound that shuts everything out. I write in concentrated bursts from 1 to 6 a.m., then reread what I’ve done to see if it’s worth pursuing. As you can imagine, sometimes it’s fairly strange.

Dad’s Garage’s last short-play festival, 8 1/2 x 11, had a theme of love and lust, and your contribution was “Snuff Film.” What’s the deal with you and violence?

I tend to write darker material — obviously — but I don’t think it’s beyond the range of what ordinary people are capable of. I think violence is emotionally resonant with people. It’s not for shock value or entertainment. It’s for the power of the image — whatever power it still has. “Snuff Film’s” not really about a snuff film, it’s metaphor for what love can do and how our desires create rifts between us. It’s never going to be easy to watch violence in my plays. It won’t be like watching action movies, where people die inconsequentially.

You’re the playwright-in-residence for Out of Hand Theater. How did you and the company develop a play about a bunch of animated characters?

We had a pitch meeting for ideas for the upcoming season and I had an outline with eight characters, which is a lot of actors for a small company — and even a large one. They started as archetypes from the world of animation, like two schoolgirls from anime cartoons. Some come from before there was animation, like Winston Puppet. The pretext is that they’re looking for a lost hammer, and everyone has subplots that have to be resolved at the end — for the ones who are still alive, at least. When you look at a script that says things like, “A TV flies in from the ceiling,” it’s going to be a producer’s instinct to go, “Oh, I don’t know about this.” But they were all excited about it. At our rehearsals and talk-backs I learned a lot, like the inclusion of the “Applause” sign, which goes off at times you wouldn’t expect. The expectations of the “studio audience” provide the final piece of the puzzle.

Cartoon has broad, funny caricatures, like the schoolgirls (Ariel de Man and Angela Porter) and the bossy little girl (Maia Knispel). But the ones who convey the most emotional weight are the puppet (Geoff Uterhardt), who literally hangs from the ceiling, and Rockstar (J. Joe Sykes), a stuffed animal with sharp, dangerous claws. How did you find a balance between real and “cartoony”?

The very basic characters can convey big-picture things because they’re so simple. If you’re going to talk about materialism, you’re going to use two schoolgirls obsessed with going to the mall. Winston Puppet’s both the most intellectual and the saddest of the show. If he was less developed, I wouldn’t be able to take advantage of the fact that when he gets what he wants, it isn’t what he expected. You can’t dash someone’s hopes if they’re too simple. The bossy little girl turns up in cartoons all the time, but making her an actual dictator is endlessly entertaining to me. Because in real life we have someone running the country who seems harmless — except for the fact that he’s running the country.

Cartoon reminds me of the comic book movie V for Vendetta and the musical Urinetown in that they all use “light” genres to comment on totalitarianism.

It’s a lot easier to hold up a mirror to people if it’s a fun-house mirror. It’s easier for people to look at their reflection if it’s distorted [rather] than the actuality. I usually tend to write individual stories that hopefully an audience member can identify with, but Cartoon is my first time with, for lack of a better term, “social commentary.” There were — and are — things going on in society that I wanted to respond to. It came from an idea of declining civil liberties, the barrage of the mass media, the elevation of consumerism. Today there’s a sense that “things used to be so great, and they’re going to get better again,” but no one does anything. I think there’s an epidemic of inaction in this country. Cartoon is designed to be a parable, but I have to say it’s one of the bleakest things I’ve written, under a candy-colored shell.