Face-Off With Ugliness
nytheatre.com review by Dianna Tucker Baritot
August 16, 2007
According to the program's synopsis, Face-Off with Ugliness is "a dark comedy about an image-conscious, media-driven world, the environment, and ballet." This play about a ballet dancer-turned-cosmetic surgeon who decides to use his skills to mend the ozone layer's hole is a tall order for a one-hour, two-actor show. Rick Bland, writer and actor in the play, has penned a piece which is part commentary, part comedy, and part pseudo-biography.
The play begins in the year 2041 with Dr. Frank Shelley's death in a somewhat dystopic future where farmlands have turned to dust and the quest for manufactured beauty and fitness is as strong as ever. The script then takes us through his life from the beginning, chronicling his unplanned conception, troubled childhood, angst-ridden teen years, tortured adulthood, and untimely demise. Shelley goes from dance ingénue to plastic surgeon, experiencing a gamut of unusual occurrences which include a conversation with his abused feet, the discovery of a lipid-based ozone miracle repair, and his own murder at the hands of a middle-aged couple. Bland and Rachel Hamilton, under Heather Davies's direction, play all the characters in his journey "from the sperm to the worm," which is no small task: between them they play 12 characters.
The two actors adeptly handle the challenge of transitioning between roles, using voice modulations, accents, and costume pieces to indicate changes. I was never confused as to whom each actor was playing at any time, but Davies could have given them more to do in the blocking. For a show so focused on the body in motion, there is an awful lot of standing around. The entire production is played on a blank stage with two wooden chairs, a card table, and cartoonish props built apparently from foam board, allowing the action to flow smoothly from scene to scene. Personally, I found the use of two-dimensional props in conjunction with actual set dressing and costumes to be a bit unsettling. Then again, maybe unsettling is exactly what Davies is going for, but it becomes a distraction, drawing focus away from the script.
While the narrative and dialogue are cleverly entertaining, Bland spends the majority of the hour illustrating the protagonist's balletic youth, and it is not until three-quarters of the way through the show that he truly addresses the topics about which the play promises to be in the program notes. In the last 15 minutes, Dr. Shelley's esteemed medical career and scientific breakthrough are so quickly depicted (in comparison to the very long and detailed description of his failed dance career) I found myself leaving the theatre with more questions about the play than I had going in: how does he discover this mysterious compound? How is it applied to the ozone layer? If farmlands are all wasted away to deserts in 2041, how can people eat enough to still get fat? Why did his feet stop talking to him? Why did they ever start? Why was he assassinated?
Face Off with Ugliness succeeds on several levels: it is absurd, it is funny, it is provocative. But in trying to be both a sci-fi sociopolitical piece and a personal tale of triumph and tragedy, the story is spread so thin as to do neither completely. Bland's bizarre and hilarious idea of a cosmetic surgeon sealing the hole in the ozone layer with plastic surgery is one that has potential, but its rendering in this particular script seems imbalanced; more time spent on Dr. Shelley's adulthood and less on his upbringing might help to tell the story more completely.