Audience Participation Undoes The Judgment of Fools

The setup:

There are two types of theatergoers in the world – those who like audience participation and those who loathe it. You should probably know into which of these camps you fall before making arrangements to see the absurdist/vaudevillian social commentary comedy The Judgment of Fools. You see, not only will you be expected to participate in the show, you’ll also be expected to enjoy watching and listening to other audience members participate in the show.

If you’re still reading, I’ll assume that means you are keen on the idea, so I’ll continue.

The conceit of the play is that we the audience, led by a group of Fools onstage, get to judge/comment on a number of hot-button issues via the skits presented in the one-and-a-half-hour performance. Sometimes we’re part of the skits, sometimes we’re the protagonist and other times we’re simply called upon to give a thumbs up or down to what we see transpire onstage.

It’s the brainchild of Bernardo Cubría, a Mexico-born, Houston-raised actor and playwright. With its first run as a co-production in New York City and a subsequent run in Los Angeles, The Judgment of Fools now lands in Houston with an updated bonus. In collaboration with Horse Head Theatre, Cubría has tweaked and redrafted the show specifically for us here in Houston.

Whether the free wine and beer offered to all patrons before and during the show was specially doled out specifically to loosen up Houston audiences, I can’t say. But I would advise anyone considering attending to drink up, as a good buzz is surely one of the keys to having a good time at this show.

The execution:

It all starts out on an interesting note. Upon arrival at the theater, we’re asked to go into makeshift voting booths and cast our ballots for who we’d like to see as President and Vice President of ’Merica. The ballots are left blank so leader-wish imagination is allowed to run wild, which frankly this week is a much-needed fantasy. The most interesting answer, we’re told, will win a prize.

After we stuff our answers into a box, the house doors are opened and we’re met inside the theater by the four Fools (Ronnie Blaine, Jason Duga, Laura Moreno and Callina Situka), outfitted in red long-john onesies with rag-tag vests or skirts and donning clown makeup. They ask us to write our names on a chalk wall (little do we know that they're to be used later as research for the play) and proceed to chat us up as we take out seats.

They may be wearing clown-like make-up and called Fools, but they are really neither. They are sweet, sometimes saucy, genuine characters. There is no trick up their sleeves or cynicism in their banter. They may make us laugh with their pronouncements (such as one Fool’s assertion that he built certain set pieces with his penis) and their penchant for taking silly selfies with us, but they are lovable one and all.

“Are you ready to see a play in a city that doesn’t give a shit about plays but only cares about football and oil? Are you ready to see a dying art form?” yells our lounge-lizard-meets-motivational-speaker Master of Ceremonies Fool (Brendon Duran). It’s a very pithy start, this taking the piss outta things. And it’s a sly sensibility that will continue during the play even while being severely hamstrung by some thud-landing audience participation, sketches that go on far too long and a production volume that left me with a raging headache.

Roaring out the rules of the show, our MC Fool (over utilizing a whistle that could break glass) tells us that we have the power to judge each and every skit the other Fools perform. Don’t like something, we can stop it. Like something, we can deem it worthy. Prizes are dangled, encouragement is boomingly hollered and away we go.

What Cubría is going for in the dozen or so absurdist skits that make up the evening is a chance for the audience to see the hypocrisy and ugliness in our racist, sexist, social media-obsessed lives and to then discuss it as a group in response to the foolishness we see onstage.

A pair of horny lovebirds turn out to be adulterers – who do we blame, him or her? An audience member is brought up onstage and his Facebook page is projected on a scrim for all of us to read. Do we like him based on what we see without really knowing him? Girl Fools dress up as Wall Street boors, donning ties and dangling strap-on dildos, dancing like they own the joint, while Male Fools dressed like porn stars sexy-dance and act out lesbian scenes. Which depiction do we find most reprehensible and why?

It’s all excellent food for thought that is unfortunately diluted by questions thrown to an audience that really doesn’t want to participate. What do we think? What do we feel? Who has something to say about that scene? As anyone who’s ever seen effective participatory theater knows, this isn’t the way to engage an audience. We need to be coddled, nourished and helped along if we're going to come out of our shy audience shells. Not peppered with "put me on the spot with weighty matters" questions.

The play’s best scene suffers the most from this in the end. In a stroke of utter diversity brilliance, the Fools are asked to participate in a pageant of stereotypes. Each one taking on the persona of a minority, in this case Asian, Latino, Jewish, Black and an audience member made to volunteer as the White contestant. Wearing beauty pageant sashes identifying their race/culture, each Fool is asked to come up to the microphone and imitate their persona’s biggest stereotype. It’s both funny and painful to watch the Asian bow and titter, the Jew pick up loose change off the floor and beam with pride, the Latino pose and swagger like a street thug, and on and on.

It’s all fascinating and cringe-worthy and smart as hell. Until the MC Fool brings us into the act. What do we have to say? Which stereotype is the most widely believed? Are there other stereotypes? What are they? When the girl behind me said that maybe the most popular stereotype of the black community was that they smell, I knew that I’d had enough of listening to anything we had to say. When a man later assured us that the ill-treatment of black people in America had gone on for 700 years, I wanted to bang my head against a historical wall. When a woman in the front row posited that the problem with America was that folks used to be able to fund their Yale tuition on a McDonald’s salary, I gave up completely.

It’s possible that Cubría's intension was to prove that it was in fact the audience that were the Fools and not his cast onstage, but I’m fairly sure that this wasn’t his point.

For their part, the Fools, directed by Philip Hays, did their best to carry on. Duran is a ball of overamplified energy who masterminds scene changes and tries to engage us on all fronts. But energy alone isn’t enough for him to succeed. What was needed was a fluid handle on improvisational, sassy warmth, allowing him to shut down ridiculous comments and cajole us when we said nothing.

Of the rest of the Fools, who all had brief moments of brilliance, none was more in control of his edgy advantage than Ronnie Blaine. He relied less on sheer volume and more on subtlety to portray his "foolishness," and his muttered comments and glances were the true biting humor of the evening.

The verdict:

To bring it back to those two kinds of theater people, I fall most heavily on the side of those who detest audience participation. But I say this with a strong caveat. Done well, and by the right kind of performer with the right kind of script, it can be a revelatory experience.

That’s not the case with The Judgment of Fools.

And in this instance it’s a terrible shame, since Cubría has some incredibly important things to say, communicated in some unique and entertaining moments. Adding to the disappointment is that this show is the product of Horse Head, a company known for taking huge risks that often pay off in grand fashion. A final blow to our expectations is that this whole messy stew is directed by one of Houston’s most intriguing directors, Philip Hays, who has been the creative darling of so many of our past reviews and awards.

But hey, Houston – we see lots of safe, easy, no-brainer shows, right? So this one failed. Mostly because we as an audience suck, not because the show has no meat. But at least it tried something. My hope is that Cubría keeps tweaking The Judgment of Fools so the ideas raised, the risk taken and the discussion the show wants us to have can find a way back on the stage in a more successful manner.

The Judgment of Fools runs through November 12 at REC Room, 100 Jackson. For tickets visit $45 to $25.