Choose Your Own Playlist at Impact's 'Jukebox Stories'

Theater is an ephemeral art form. Unlike a book or a movie or a pop song that you can return to again and again, a play usually runs its course for a few weeks, and you either see it or don't. Sure, there are some shows that run for years or decades, like big Broadway hits or Beach Blanket Babylon, but even those are subtly different night after night. For most shows at most small and midsize theaters, and even at big ones, it's relatively rare for a show to come back for a revival run, and rarer still to do so with the same cast.

Jukebox Stories at Impact Theatre is a special case. It's a completely different show every time it comes back to the company's black-box space in a North Berkeley pizza parlor basement, in part because it's a different show every single night. It's a collaboration between playwright Prince Gomolvilas, a former San Franciscan now living in Los Angeles, and Brandon Patton, a singer-songwriter now based in New Haven. Gomolvilas tells a story, then Patton sings a song, and the playlist for the evening is randomly selected by the audience. This is the third time Jukebox Stories has come to Impact. After premiering with the company in 2006, it returned in 2008 with a second edition, subtitled The Case of the Creamy Foam, and five years later it's finally back again with a whole new batch of tales and ditties mixed in with some old favorites.

Round three has the subtitle The Secrets of Forking and is loosely themed around fortune telling. Alexandra Friedman's surprisingly elaborate set is full of mystical and Oriental kitsch: red-clothed tables, candles, kitty statues, a palmistry poster, and origami birds all over the floor. Audience members are given tarot cards as they enter, each one corresponding to a song or story, and cards from a parallel deck are drawn at random in a "pick a card, any card" manner throughout the show to determine the next piece to be formed. There's also a lottery for special prizes tied in with this whole process. The performers have the option of skipping the random selection from time to time if there's something they particularly want to perform at the moment because it ties in with the last piece that the other one read or sang, and the first and last parts are pre-chosen to give some semblance of control over the overall shape of the evening.

Both Gomolvilas and Patton are assured, charismatic, and hilarious performers. Patton kicks things off with an amusing song about how a sexy fortune teller in a James Bond flick led to him dabbling in prognostication himself: "I bought my own deck of tarot cards and gave up on free will." Gomolvilas reads a post from his blog, Bamboo Nation, about how an earlier blog entry, "Romanian Cinema is the Worst Thing to Ever Happen to the Romanian Tourist Industry," inadvertently caused him to be sought after as some kind of authority on Southeast European cinema, something he'd be the first to say he knows nothing about.

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This is hardly the first time that Gomolvilas's blog has become a viral sensation. Past versions of Jukebox Stories have talked about the rabid outcry attracted by his 2007 post, "How Gay is 'High School Musical'?" I don't see that on the list this time, but there are certainly a few that I remember fondly from the last time around, such as "My Sister's MySpace Profile" and "What My Sister's Breast Implants Have to Do with Golf" (he gets a lot of mileage out of that sister, and for good reason). One of them happened to be read on opening night, "21 Reasons Why This Movie Sucks," a priceless rant about whitewashing characters in the movie 21 that were Asian-American in the book. Ones that were new to me included "The Litany of Geographic Guesses," in which a drunk woman in a bar tried to guess the Thai-American writer's ethnic heritage in a tiresome ritual familiar to many nonwhite Americans, a terribly charming story about making up stuff to keep his therapist amused, and a hysterical play-by-play of a bizarre Canadian boy band video.

Armed with an acoustic guitar and a willing audience for sing-along choruses, Patton deftly rattled off songs about the uselessness of homeopathic remedies, knowing way too much about the sexual history of his family, and the stealthy power of a Sundance parking attendant. Perhaps the funniest number was simply lines from an internet forum of Asian-American girls talking about which celebrities they'd like to sleep with, set to music. It's also available on YouTube, but there's no substitute for hearing it live surrounded by the howling laughter of your fellow spectators. And if it's not in the mix that night, there are others equally memorable that probably will be. My wife and I still say "Box wine? Are you daft?" as an in-joke from a song Patton sang way back in 2008.

The thread tying all these bits together is pretty loose, essentially it's just the experience of hanging out with a couple of charming and funny raconteurs. The tarot theme only comes up occasionally, but there's an amusing bit of dodgy fortune-telling with a volunteer or draftee from the audience. Gomolvilas's last story, about a ride-along with ghost hunters, is poignant and often very funny but also feels scattered and overlong, which isn't the best way to end things. But between all the witty storytelling and banter and knowing that you're only hearing a fraction of it, it's a show that you may well want to see more than once, and it's priced affordably enough that you can do that. You can even bring beer and pizza downstairs to enjoy while you watch. If you're anything like us (and even if you're nothing like us), you may want to go early and go often. Don't count on the boys coming back for fourths.

Jukebox Stories: The Secrets of Forking runs through June 9, 2013 at Impact Theatre in Berkeley. For tickets and information visit impacttheatre.com.

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All photos by Cheshire Isaacs.

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