Remember when movies were going to kill live theater; television was killing both the movies and radio; and the Internet was killing TV and pretty much everything else? Well, Thunderbird Theatre Company does. The San Francisco troupe’s latest farce focuses on a medium that already seems like an anachronism: live television.
Thunderbird has done a play or two every year since the company’s 1998 debut, but Show Down! is its first production since 2012’s The Scotland Company, a Victorian period piece positing the invention of Scotland as an elaborate hoax.
Group-written by Thunderbird mainstays Claire Rice, Christine McClintock, Bryce Allemann and Kathy Hicks, Show Down! takes place at the last all-live TV station in the country (named, subtly enough, KRAP). The elderly owner of the station has died and is having his two chief showrunners battle it out in ratings for control of the company. (At least I think that’s what’s going on. Between Zane Barrett’s rushed, barking delivery as the old man and the tinny sound in the video shown after his death, it’s hard to decipher what he’s saying.)
Megan Briggs’ earnest and harried Beth just wants to make good television, although the shows she puts out include such dodgy-sounding gems as Serious Hospital Strippers and Single People Being Sarcastic on a Couch. Her rival is hysterically sinister Commodore (Matt Gunnison), who claims to be tuned-in to the future but is styled like a 19th-century villain in monocle and mustachio. Commodore plans to base TV shows on viewers’ tweets and pay actors according to how many “likes” they get. But as obsessed as he is with winning, he’s also determined to break up the love affair between all-purpose leading man Smith Rockslide (a delightfully smooth, announcer-voiced Shay Casey) and animal-handler turned everything-handler Jenny (appropriately exasperated Tonya Narvaez), and enlists his rumpled, social media-obsessed intern (Donald Schmidt) to come between them. What's Commodore up to, and for what fiendish reason? If he could ever find a moment to himself for a gloating soliloquy, I’m sure he’d tell us.
The cast of ten is surprisingly large considering how few people are onstage at any given time (at least until everything inevitably comes crashing together at the end). There’s the melodramatically posing leading lady always demanding more screen time (Jan Gilbert, who’s particularly funny in the many parts she plays in KRAP shows). Barrett also plays a whiny stage tech who just wants time alone with the cue-card girl (Marinna Benzon), and wails repeatedly, “Why won’t they let us be together?!” Even the commercials come into play as an ongoing subplot, with a sister-brother team (Alexia Staniotes and Ronen Sberlo) shilling for kale and life-planning software.
Directed with comic aplomb by Neil Higgins, Show Down! doesn’t find much worth saving in the dear old television medium. A lot of the play's hilarity comes from the ridiculousness of the TV shows themselves, especially the game show There’s a Squid in My Pants, Maybe, with Sberlo as a glowering, cigar-chomping clown. We get tastes of tough-as-nails judge reality shows, formulaic sitcoms, cop shows, soap operas, and everything in between, including a well-aimed jab at a beloved cult series.