Theatre on Fire certainly does have a way with British plays. Their cheeky production of Jez Butterworth’s MOJO (at Charlestown Working Theatre thru Nov.19th) will have you cringing and laughing at the same time, when a band of overeager underachievers try to muscle in on the emerging British rock scene. (MOJO won a slew of awards in London for Butterworth. He also penned last year’s Tony Award winning JERUSALEM.)
If David Mamet were English he might have written MOJO, not AMERICAN BUFFALO. Instead of Mamet’s rare nickel, the coin of the realm in MOJO is a pop singer the schemers think will make them all rich. Their colossal ineptitude is what makes these small time operators dangerous (and funny). Their brains are so scrambled from liquor and pills that they’re sidetracked at every juncture, turning on each other at the drop of a hat. Director Darren Evans gets that balance of menace and mirth exactly right.
MOJO reminded me of the film SNATCH for its sardonic humor and easy violence…and for its outrageous characters. (You may recall Brad Pitt’s brilliant, incomprehensible turn as the scrappy bare-knuckles fighter.) If you’ve seen SNATCH or any of the gritty British street films, you’ll remember that it takes a good ten minutes or so to accustom your ear to the working class dialect. MOJO, too, will have you treading water in the fist scene, as two wannabes fantasize about the fame they’re about to taste. Not to worry. The actors are so skilled that the gist is transmitted physically. Brian Bernhard and Keith Michael Pinault can hardly contain themselves, whirling about the stage in a frenzy of anticipation. It’s a tour de force. Even without benefit of language comprehension, there’s no mistaking that something is up.
What’s up includes mayhem and murder, something these penny ante toughs hadn’t anticipated. Butterworth wrings considerable humor from their puny attempts to deal with it. Greg Maraio is hilarious, morphing from gofer to mover and shaker, all because of a key. Gerard Slattery as their boss is wound tighter than a drum and Andres Rey Solorzano delivers the cameo role of the rocker at the center of the power struggle. All hell breaks loose when a local crime boss wants a piece of the action. Adam Siladi nails the role of the club owner’s crazy son (Not an easy task when everyone on stage is certifiable. He’s just a wee bit off their brand of crazy.)
Since MOJO (a nod to Muddy Waters?) references rock legends of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, Evans sets up a live band to the rear of the playing area. They supply the rock background in the script and, to the delight of the audience, they perform Buddy Holly, Elvis, Little Richard and Billy Lee Riley tunes before the show and at intermission. Come a half hour early to hear their kickin’ licks. If you’re a fan of films like IN BRUGES or LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS, then you’ll get your mojo working at Theatre On Fire.