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Chinese Tunnel Vision

Empty Boat restages There's Chinese Tunnels Under Boise!

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In a downtown warehouse lit only by the early evening sun, a pair of hairy ankles jutted out from under a projection screen meant to display Power Point presentations. The legs slid into a pair of skinny jeans and two hands dropped down to secure a pair of worn high-top Nikes. Actor Dwayne Blackaller emerged as if from a time machine, running his fingers through his thick black wig with the dopey swagger of Keanu Reeves in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.

Blackaller was in the final week of rehearsals for Empty Boat Theatre Company's latest original production, There's Chinese Tunnels Under Boise!, which opens Wednesday, Aug. 1, and runs through Saturday, Aug. 18.

His co-star, John Adkins, ambled out from another corner of The Watercooler space boasting aviator-style glasses and bandana-tamed red locks, while actress Anne McDonald strode over to join the duo in a black, full-body unitard, lamenting the disappearance of her trench-coat coverup.

The quartet was completed by playwright and actor Nick Garcia, who corralled the group to go over lines from the late-'80s-inspired comedy, which was staged in another form at Neurolux in 2000.

"It's only the same in structure, really," explained Garcia. "There's nothing that's really the same except for a massive spectacle moment."

The original production, There's Chinese Tunnels Under Boise! And Other Local Legends, was written by Garcia, Tom Willmorth, Ira Amyx and Dale Slack. Willmorth, half of Idaho Shakespeare Festival's Green Show comedy duo The Fool Squad, injected the production with a hearty dose of political satire.

"The first one was very much about Boise and its history," said Garcia. "There was a lot of political jokes in the first one and locations of places that once were here and neighborhoods that used to be really different."

This iteration of the play drops characters John (played by Adkins) and Dwayne (played by Blackaller) into a basement in the still "kind of dumpy" North End in 1987. The fantasy/action-adventure video game The Legend of Zelda has just come out on Nintendo and the high-school grads pass their time vanquishing pixilated enemies and trying to rescue the helpless princess. But when Dwayne's old flame Lina comes back to town, the boys decide to embark on an adventure that leads them deep into the bowels of Boise's legendary Chinese tunnels.

"[Blackaller's] character has read one thing in a certain way for a couple of years and he's made up his mind about how something happened," said Garcia. "We do that in life ... then, you see it suddenly in a different way."

Though Garcia and co. were tight lipped when prodded for plot details, they agreed that the play is sort of a mash up between Wayne's World and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.

"What is different is the tone of the play really changes ... where the play starts is vastly different from where it ends," said Adkins. "As you start the play you would never guess that it's going to be going where it goes."

Blackaller added, jokingly: "There's so many secrets imbedded in this thing, and if you play it backwards, it's amazing because the whole Declaration of Independence is in there."

Blackaller, who is co-directing Chinese Tunnels! with Garcia, also directed Empty Boat's other original production, The Acheri, a horror play that took place in an abandoned day care center in Victor. For that production, Empty Boat converted the former Ceramica building at Fifth and Main streets into an eerie haunted house.

"The experience, I know it was tough for the actors, it took a lot out of them, especially doing two shows a night, especially because they had to fully commit to the dark material," explained Hollis Welsh, co-founder of Empty Boat.

"We were so glad when that show was over; it was way too much and too dark," added Garcia.

But Chinese Tunnels! swings the pendulum in the opposite direction, highlighting comedy and nostalgia over psychological terror.

"It's got really, really goofy stupid humor and really fantastic commitment to irreverence ... but it's also got a really great heart to it, which is exciting," said Blackaller. "I think that's something that's new to me about the project is Nick brought in some really touching and tender moments in the midst of this really goofy comedy."

Empty Boat co-founders Welsh and Garcia--who received Boise Weekly Cover Auction grants for both The Acheri and There's Chinese Tunnels Under Boise!--aren't particularly interested in staging non-original work, but they don't dismiss the idea, either.

"It's funny because neither of us are super inspired by a lot of contemporary works right now, or we don't read enough of them," said Welsh. "I think for us, if we do take something that's not original, we would probably try to do some kind of original slant on the production of it."

And Chinese Tunnels! is nothing if not original. Garcia let the actors fine-tune his script during rehearsals, dropping lines that didn't get a laugh and inserting some that did. The result is a lewd farce Blackaller jokingly dubbed a "charming irreverent comedy about truth in Boise."

"So the language is very foul ... and the subject matter is pretty adult, so we're suggesting 16 and older," noted Welsh.

"My mother is coming, but I would not see the show with my mother," added Adkins.

"It's like a rated-R movie, but it's inappropriate in all the right ways," Blackaller said with a wry smile.

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