Oh, Larry Craig. Just when it looks as though the furor may die down, another bit of ridiculousness associated with this whole business surfaces, and everyone's off and running again. It's seems as though the rehashing of Craig's indiscretions is indicative of the current social climate and our obsession with (and repression of) sex. Maybe 70 years from now, the scandal will be nothing more than a hiccup in Idaho's history. Or maybe, someone will take it and turn it completely around.
In 1936, a propaganda film entitled Tell Your Children was made by a group of conservative Christians to warn against the dangers of marijuana use, and to show how after just one toke, the kids would be hooked. Terrible acts—theft, prostitution, selling babies—to get more of the "sweet pill" would follow, as would rape, suicide and/or murder, due to the madness brought on by the drug. According to ReeferMadness.org, it wasn't long before the film was discovered, deconstructed and reconstructed by "notorious exploitation film maestro Dwain Esper (Narcotic, Marihuana, Maniac), who took the liberty of cutting in salacious insert shots and slapping on the sexier title of Reefer Madness, before distributing it on the exploitation circuit."
For nearly four decades, it sat relegated to recognition by a mere few in the know. It resurfaced in the 1970s when it was rediscovered by a whole new generation of people with strong—albeit opposing—feelings about drugs. Seeing (and seizing) an opportunity to take the film to a new level, Kevin Murphy (lyricist, book co-writer) and Dan Studney (composer, book co-writer) brought Reefer Madness: The Musical to the masses, offering yet one more generation a chance to experience this classic in a whole new way. And last Saturday, local theater company Daisy's Madhouse brought the madness to the Neurolux.
A packed house and a 7:30 p.m. show time meant my 7:25 arrival was nowhere near early enough to get a good vantage point and my companion and I had to snag seats near the door, about as far away from the stage as possible while still being in the same room. Ultimately, we missed some of the nuances—facial expressions, small movements, bits of the dance numbers performed on the floor in front of the stage—we may have caught otherwise. However, a seat right up front may not have guaranteed uninterrupted viewing and/or listening. The play was performed in a bar. A full-service bar complete with a bartender making drinks, a cocktail waitress taking orders and theater-goers laughing themselves silly. Surprisingly, instead of detracting from the experience, seeing the play in that venue added a level of underground coolness a mainstream theater wouldn't have been able to provide. Seeing the musical in a dark, smoky bar gave the evening an aura of what I imagine it must have been like to hang out in dark, smoky speak-easy.
Musical director John Michael Curtis and director Jennifer Dunn stayed pretty true to the original stage version. Reefer Madness is the story of straight-laced teenage sweethearts Jimmy Harper, played by Chris Privoznik, and Mary Lane, played by the gorgeously voiced Giovanna Hernandez. Their future together is jeopardized when sleazy pot dealer Jack, played by Brandon Bilbao, introduces Jimmy to the "Reefer Den" and addicts good-hearted Mae (Erin Westfall), Sally (Katey Harris)—who is willing to sell her body and her baby for a fix—and maniacal Ralph (John Gibbons, co-founder of Daisy's Madhouse). One hit of the reefer and Jimmy is thrown into a hallucinatory fugue, complete with orgiastic sex and an appearance of an evil dancing goat man. Jimmy's downward spiral and continued use earn him another hallucination, this time a visit from Jesus (Bilbao) telling him to get straight. But the dope is too seductive, and Jimmy lies, steals, commits manslaughter, really loses the girl and ends up facing the death penalty ... all because of the wicked weed.
Under the best of circumstances, a relatively well-known musical complete with ensemble dance numbers would be difficult to put on without a hitch. And while staging the show at the Neurolux could not have been the best of circumstances—a small stage and acoustics better suited to guitar amps and giant speakers—Dunn did a great job. She gathered a company of fine actors, including Terry Heying as the Lecturer, Sarah Handren as Mrs.Poppy/Lady Liberty, Dan Alsedek as the Goat Man and Jana Mangelson as Joan of Arc, and a crew of talented people, including assistant director Juliet Noonan.
In the program, Daisy's Madhouse offers a thanks to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Law. "We commend their members for struggling to make the change they wish to see in the world, often in the face of intolerance for viewpoints that diverge from mainstream."
In her director's notes, Dunn explains that she doesn't expect this show to change the world or even change people's minds. "I don't have an agenda to push. We are here to put on a great show. The great thing about theater is that every single audience member has a different experience, depending on personal background.
"Foremost among my reasons for directing and co-producing this show is that I think it's one of the most hilarious plays ever. Another motive is the show's attack on the institution of disinformation. It's about our government using fear tactics to scare people and control the minds of a nation. Authority figures do not always have your best interests at heart, no matter what they tell you. I think it obviously all boils down to that."
Reefer Madness: The Musical is a tongue-in-cheek look at a 71-year-old propaganda film that, at the time, was perceived as a true portrayal of the dangers of marijuana use. It's seems a ridiculous farce now. I wonder if New Line Cinema has considered buying the rights to the Larry Craig story?
Reefer Madness: The Musical, Sept. 22 and 29, 7:30 p.m., $10, Neurolux, 111 N. 11th St., 208-343-0886.