Twenty-four hours after seeing the premiere of Fabulous Prizes, I felt like having my head examined for wormholes through which dozens of bizarre, indelible, and emotion-laden images had penetrated. It’s no wonder that the Satori Group, which moved here from Cincinnati in 2009, considers itself more a dramatic laboratory than a conventional theater. With the latter dying or imperiled (see Intiman’s woes) and Satori temporarily occupying a building slated for deep-bore tunnel demolition, now seems a fine time to tamper with the DNA of conventional, “safe” narrative. But unlike most experimental theater, often throwing spaghetti at the wall, local playwright Neil Ferron’s Fabulous Prizes feels like the Ph.D testing of a calculated hypothesis about what “works” on the human consciousness.
On its surface, the play tells a recognizable, if odd, linear story: Failed former restaurateur Julius (former WET member Nathan Sorseth) lives shut-in-style with his son Arthur (Quinn Franzen) in a tiny apartment (a clever, shabbily unchic set by Clare Strasser). Building lackey Walter (Anthony Darnell) is their bridge to the outside world, shopping for them and relaying mail that never includes what they’re waiting for—a vindicating restaurant review from the Guide Michelin food critic who, 28 years prior, attended the opening of Mirandaria (named for Julius’ wife, who ran away that fateful night).
That’s the narrative setup. What follows is a Mulholland Drive–like melding of fantasy, reality, and absurdity. A hostage is taken. Tenderness is sought. Personal hang-ups are articulated, sometimes poetically (“You can’t touch a woman ’til she is blinded by a falling helicopter”). Moment by moment, the ludicrous events feel real—irrational yet psychologically plausible, and sometimes disturbing. A character duct-taping his own face and mouth better expresses self-subjugation than any amount of dialogue.
Superbly acted, directed by Caitlin Sullivan, Fabulous Prizes will challenge and reward even the most confounded visitor to Satori’s small loft space. As the real nature of Julius and Arthur’s claustrophobic relationship emerges (be warned, it’s not pretty), other unhappy families come to mind. There are echoes of Miss Havisham–like parenting and Manchurian Candidate–style manipulation. The show is a maelstrom that feels at once kitschy, deep, intense, and eerily true, however weird and improbable. Behold the magic of theater, straight from the test tube.