Center Stage -
KXLU, 88.9 FM (Transcript)
Sexy obsessions and rock n’ roll fantasies bring two souls together in Steven Banks and Penn
Jillette’s “Love Tapes.” The show’s superb showcasing of talent runs second only to a display of invigorating action that encapsulates the audience from the beginning. The show’s
sheer force -- hinging on tantalizing feats and riveting surprises -- leaves the onlooker begging for more and awestruck by the end.
At the outset, flashing lights propelled by raucous rock music draw attention to a stage garbed with a pseudo tapestry that reads: “Melinda loves Kevin.” Melinda is a seductively sexy fan obsessed with Kevin, the lead singer of “Umlaut,” who is an exact replica of a young David Lee Roth. In an attempt to win Kevin’s heart, Melinda creates a provocative videotape, hoping that it will seduce the rock star. After she mails the tape, things go awry when Kevin’s personal assistant, Carl, screens the videotape and develops an obsession of his own. Insomuch as the story goes, both actors don’t miss a beat portraying many angles of neurotic obsession as seen through the lens of a video camera. It wouldn’t be fair to reveal the most interesting aspect of the play, but let’s just say that the audience is kept on their toes beyond being engrossed in an interesting story. Throughout the play, a “rock and roll” motif is kept alive via music, language, and of course video recordings, and even between acts, roadies appear on stage to set up for future scenes. The set is also seductive, complete with believable props such as guitar amps, rock and roll paraphernalia, and running water.
The display of energetic theatrics coupled with the unpredictable antics of the actors make this show a must see; however, be advised that the play contains nudity and adult humor not suitable for children.
-- Jenell Rae
©2005 KXLU FM
Love Tapes is the story of star-crossed lovers -- only this time the "star" is a rock star and the "crossed" is video letters. The new play by Steven Banks and Penn Gillette is a love story of the traditional kind -- it has desperate people taking desperate actions to try and satisfy some deep need for acceptance. Along the way, there are obstacles and setbacks, but in the end. . .
Well, let's not give away too much. Love Tapes, debuting in Los Angeles, uses videography to demonstrate the problems with finding your soul mate. Its story has roots in a real life event that happened to guitarist Steve Vai -- a female fan sent him a video letter of a provocative nature. The play begins with Melinda (Julie Mullen) recording a very risqué video for a member of a rock band. The band, called Umlaut (as in the two dots that occasionally grace a vowel to denote specific pronunciation), appears to be of the heavy metal, 80s hair band variety. Melinda's tape is confessional, erotic, sad, and pathetic at the same time and Melinda does seem to be the sort of groupie who ends up in court on stalking charges.
As the first act progresses, we get more depth from Melinda and the tapes. Apparently the tapes have not been one way but have been answered and led to a relationship. The second act takes us to Carl's (Dean Cameron) apartment where we learn the other half of the story.
The plot centers on the filming of these vignettes, done live on the stage with real cameras and a TV monitor that is pointed at the audience. This has a disconcerting effect, as the actors are speaking directly at the camera, not the audience. In order to read their expressions and see their faces, the audience is forced to look at the TV set rather than the actor and in the process is forced into learning about these characters by watching them on TV, just as Melinda has learned about and fallen in love with Kevin.
The direction is clever, with each act being preceded by a quick light show simulating a rock concert, and between scene changes being done by "roadies" for Umlaut. There are also videos of the band, shots of MTV's TRL Live and VH1's Behind the Music which lend authenticity to Melinda's infatuation and are also very funny. To further cement Umlaut's godlike status, audience members are offered a demo CD and Umlaut T-shirts for sale in the lobby.
Dean Cameron and Julie Mullen do an excellent job in developing their characters. Their monologues to the camera progressively point to believable changes in their attitudes. Mullen's Melinda transforms from someone who is borderline delusional to someone who has probably the firmest grasp of the play's realities. She is fearless in her opening scene, exposing herself in more ways than one. Cameron's Carl shows a pitiable honesty in his attempts to sway Melinda with his love. They both start out in love with Kevin from Umlaut and, based on the videos from each other, both end up letting that false love go .
There is a great deal of audience interaction in the play which the actors handle with ease despite the potential for disaster when introducing an unknown element into a controlled setting. These interactions actually provide a nervous tension to the action that underscores the tension that exists any time two people try and connect in real life. Reality is seldom as pretty or neat as it is displayed in the media.
Overall, the play is not going for any meaning other than that love can conquer all. That conquest is achieved with a sense of style, originality, and impending disaster that are the hallmarks of any great romance.
Penn Jillette and Steven Banks deliver a straightforward romantic comedy in Love Tapes.
When one hears the names Penn Jillette and Steven Banks, and discovers that they've written something together, one doesn't automatically think "love story."
Jillette, the bigger and louder half of magician team Penn & Teller, is usually known for his brashly funny onstage persona. Banks, critically acclaimed for his one-man-show Steven Banks' Home Entertainment Center, now writes for such hip animated shows as SpongeBob SquarePants and Hi Hi Puffy
AmiYumi. One might expect boisterous creativity and off-center wit, but perhaps not something perfectly suited for a date. Expectations, however, are made to be upended.
"I've never done anything like writing a really sincere love story before," says
Jillette. "That's what Steven and I did: We really did write a no-kidding love story. Of course it's between two eccentric and not really at first respectable or loveable characters, but, if you break it down without seeing the show, it's fairly Hallmark—it doesn't matter how you find love, love conquers all. You wouldn't notice that until a long time into the show. When you see it, that certainly wouldn't be the first thing that popped into your head, but, with a little thought, that's what's there."
The play in question, Love Tapes, had an unusual origin: a semi-pornographic tape. "It's a tape of a woman [doing sexual things], rolling around, wishing happy birthday to [heavy metal guitarist] Steve
Vai," says Jillette. "It's a fan, just trying to declare her love for him in very socially unacceptable ways. This tape is watched by rock 'n' rollers and comedians and hipsters and gets traveled around, and it's watched by the people who watch it to be very superior to her, you know.... You're supposed to laugh at her.... We were both talking about how we really didn't find the tape funny, and we really didn't find her someone to ridicule. Rather, we found her [to be] someone very brave, in declaring her love [regardless of] whether there was any chance of getting it requited at all. That's not the position you're supposed to have toward groupies. You're supposed to see them as pathetic losers. You're not supposed to see them as people whose love is true.
"Romeo and Juliet are willing to die for love when they're 14 years old, and that's supposed to be tragic and heroic," continues
Jillette. "But we're supposed to see groupies and obsessive fans and stalkers as pathetic, even though Romeo and Juliet kill themselves, which couldn't be more stupid and fucking pathetic. There's this thing in our society, where doing anything for love is a beautiful and wonderful thing, unless of course what you're doing is unattractive, and then it's stupid. We had a lot of discussion about that, and then Steven asked this cool thought question, where he said: 'The camera's being run by somebody.' That person running the camera is never mentioned and has nothing to do with it; I wonder who that is? We started talking about that, and then thought that maybe that was a fun thing to play with. The play ends up being a discussion by me and Steven about what it was like in the room when the tape was recorded, and how beautiful is that love. Can love be beautiful, even if it's ugly? What we've tried to do with this show…is to try to make the viewer go from really laughing at her and being kind of disgusted to realizing that she's a hero."
Banks agrees that the story is about love, but he points out that the story examines obsession as well. "Seeing the tape together [made us realize], 'Wow, there's really something here,'" says Banks. "The good thing was, we took it beyond what was just on the tape and created our own story. I just think it was a really good idea that grabbed us at the same time, so we were both as enthusiastic about it. I've always been fascinated with fans and fandom, and people becoming obsessed with people. Penn has experienced a lot of that, a lot more than I have—I was sub-famous for a while, I've experienced a little of the things people send you, fan letters and so forth—but I've always been fascinated by that. To take it, to approach it seriously.… When you meet the [woman in the play], you think, 'Oh, she's this strange
wack-job that's obsessed with this guy too much.' Then it gets a little darker, and she's even more so, and you think, 'Wow. This woman needs help.' Then the story develops, and we hope that you like or even fall in love with these two characters. There is a lot of comedy in it, but it goes back and forth."
"The odd little device we use, that I think is pretty cool, is that the audience does the filming," adds
Jillette. "Someone is picked from the audience to hold the camera. It is ad-libbed and pretended that whoever they happen to grab from the audience is that friend [making the tape]. That person is addressed and told how to use the camera and talked to, and while [the actor] is completely and utterly pouring out their heart, there is an audience member standing onstage with them. Even as they get naked and light things on fire and hula hoop and so on."
Jillette and Banks met 26 years ago in San Francisco. They bonded over distinctive things they had in common: Each attended clown college, was a serious punk and rock fan, and had never done drugs, including alcohol. While they've worked together in small ways before, and have performed in a band together, Love Tapes marks their first big collaboration. Considering their backgrounds, one might have thought they'd write a screenplay or TV script, but, according to
Jillette, that didn't feel right.
"It certainly could have been a film script or a TV show—that's the sensible way to get information out to people—but your ideas are really supposed to dictate what kind of medium you choose," says
Jillette. "The beginning of the idea felt like we wanted to have it live. The idea that someone is sending a moderately pornographic tape to someone that they love and have never met.... We wondered: What would it be like to be in the room when someone is pouring that much of their soul into the camera? When you see the video, there's a level removed, and we wanted to take that away, and make it so you really are in the room with her."
One challenge facing the project was that each author lived in a different city—Jillette in Las Vegas, Banks in Los Angeles—but a combination of in-person meetings, e-mails, and various Final Draft versions sent back and forth between the two served to bridge the gap.
"After we had written a certain amount we just did sort of a reading ourselves, each alternating the parts back and forth, just to be sure that everything made sense and that stuff tracked," says Banks. "There are certain twists where [the audience] finds out, 'Oh, this is happening,' and we just wanted to make sure it made sense, and that the audience would get it. We did two readings, a small one and a little bigger one, and we made notes, changes, and so forth after that. In a way it's almost like two one-person shows."
The play is being premiered locally at Sacred Fools Theatre, starring Dean Cameron and Julie Mullen, directed by Jessie Marion. Although interest was expressed in opening the play elsewhere, the authors had plenty of reasons to choose this critically acclaimed theatre company over the competition.
"Dino [Cameron] was the first choice [to play one of the leads] in my mind, and Dino's wife, Jessie [Marion], is just a wonderful director," says
Jillette. "I'd seen some stuff at Sacred Fools. Also, Steven and I are really similar. We're the same age—we're both 50—we're middle-aged white guys. What I love about Jessie directing it is that [she's] in her 20s and [is a] a woman, so I wanted to get a really different point of view. So that was a big part of it, because the first time a play goes up, you learn so much. I really wanted someone with a different sensibility and point of view. On top of that, it could be done fast and down-and-dirty, and someplace close where Steven and I could both see it, to be able to play around with any rewrites we wanted to do."
"We're in contact with Jessie," adds Banks. "I'm going to a run-through on Friday. It's that thing as a writer—and it's different for me because so many of the things I've done I was in, whether it was television or theatre—you have to step back and let them do it, let them go, see what they come up with. You don't want to be all over it."
"Everybody wants to portray love between beautiful heroes," concludes
Jillette. "Everybody wants Humphrey Bogart and that Casablanca kind of love, but unfortunately people who are a little goofier also fall in love. I think that's much more beautiful than the kind of love that's pretty."
Steven Leigh Morris
the full article
Kiss,” a beautiful short story by Anton Chekhov, a traveling military
brigade spends the night in a provincial town at the home of a hospitable
local squire. Getting lost between the billiard hall and the living room,
a bespectacled, sloping-shouldered petty officer named Ryabovich wanders
by accident into a darkened corner, where a woman rushes toward and kisses
him — mistaking him for her lover in a secret tryst. Realizing her
gaffe, she screams and runs away, but that kiss and its after-effect
transform Ryabovich, filling him with swirling visions of romance and
self-confidence. He replays the scene in his head over and over until,
days later, in a tent, he confides it to his battalion. He imagined he
could tell the story until dawn, but it takes just a minute, popping out
like a plum pit being spat onto the ground, after which some womanizing
officer tells a pornographic joke. Ryabovich vows never again to confide
such a precious, intimate feeling, now demeaned by his crude expression of
it. His resolve echoes a theme that runs throughout Chekhov: how telling a
story defiles the experience upon which the story is based, what Janet
Malcolm calls “the danger of dislodging what sits in one’s head from
its place of safety.”
Videotaped love letters form the crux of Steven Banks and Penn
Jillette’s Love Tapes, closing this weekend at Sacred Fools
Theater — inner desires and confessions plunked onto a videocassette and
mailed across the country. “I better not look at [the cassette] or
I’ll never send it,” the confessors tell the camera operators (plucked
from the audience). There’s no tragic dimension to the humiliation of
baring all for the camera — which Melinda (Julie Mullen) does,
literally, Hula-Hooping naked in an attempt to woo lead guitarist Kevin
(Ralph Saenz) of the band Umlaut (which appears onstage). Compared to
Albee’s play, this is ice-skating, but Love Tapes nonetheless
seems to twirl amiably on the line dividing the public and the private
sectors of the frozen lake. Melinda’s tape lands in the hands of
Kevin’s PR man and general factotum, Carl (Dean Cameron), who becomes
smitten with her image, mistaking it for the real her.
Feeling a bit like a stalker, Carl — a shaved-headed sheep in a
rocker’s leather clothing — sends back a tape of his own explaining
how Kevin just made fun of her, but that he, Kevin’s gofer, adores,
better yet, understands her. For a moment, there’s a Chekhovian
dimension of unrequited love: Melinda’s in love with Kevin’s image,
Carl’s in love with Melinda’s image. More tapes are exchanged —
increasingly graphic — until a real-time meeting between Carl and
Melinda is inevitable.
Melinda flies across the country to see Carl, who won’t even kiss her
unless there’s a video camera recording the historic moment. Melinda
wants an authentic experience; Carl wants the story of it, which, in
Melinda’s view, defiles the real thing. And we’re right back to
Chekhov’s “The Kiss.”
The play’s resolution is a cop-out, but the tension between what’s
real and what’s recorded is a revelation. Under Jessie Marion’s
direction, Mullen’s Melinda has the striking appeal of a simple mind and
complicated soul, groping her way across lines of decorum, then trying to
grope her way back. Cameron’s Carl is equally innocent — as earnest,
in his own way, as Albee’s Martin, both of them conjuring Chekhov’s
©2005 L.A. Weekly
Romance on rewind
Racy video kick-starts hearts in rock 'n' roll comedy by Penn Jillette and Steven Banks
Perhaps Steven Banks and Penn Jillette get along so well because they are -- or at least were -- a couple of clowns.
Banks and Jillette both trained at different times with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College.
Neither, however, did much big-top time. Jillette went on to be half of the famed punk comedy magic act Penn & Teller and Banks is now a scribe for the soggy TV-animation king "SpongeBob SquarePants."
They first met 25 years ago when Banks attended a Penn & Teller show on his honeymoon.
While they have remained close, and once toured briefly with performing an evening of original comedy songs, they haven't written a full-length production until now.
"Love Tapes" gets its world premiere this weekend at the Sacred Fools Theater in Los Angeles. The two-person play stars comic actress Julie Mullen and Dean Cameron, a B-movie staple with credits such as "Summer School" and "Ski School."
Mullen plays Melinda, who is obsessed with Kevin, star of the rock group Umlaut.
To get his attention, she sends him a nude tape of herself. Cameron portrays Carl, Kevin's personal assistant, who screens Kevin's mail and decides to respond to Melinda himself.
Banks got the idea from a real video sent to a rock star by a fervent fan.
"Both Penn and I are fascinated by the idea of fame," Banks said. "As we were watching the video, I said, 'This would make a great play.' We started working on it soon after."
It may seem odd for Banks to write for adults, but besides his successes with the animated children's shows "CatDog," "The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron" and "Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi," he has created several plays for more mature audiences.
His most successful production, a wild one-man show called "Home Entertainment Center," led to a PBS program appropriately titled "The Steven Banks Show." Next year, a novel will be published, which also was inspired by "Home Entertainment Center."
"I am able to write in whatever style is appropriate for the subject matter," he said. "People tend to think of me as this all-American kind of guy, but I have a dark side that I tend to be able to get away with because I don't look as scary as Penn does."
Banks and Jillette wrote the part of Carl specifically for Cameron.
"We think he is so talented," Banks said. "We found Julie Mullen at a reading, and she's fantastic. These are not easy parts to do."
The play's director is Jessie Marion, a regular at Sacred Fools.
Banks doesn't want to give too much of the plot away, except to say that much of "Love Tapes" is performed in monologue form. While you might find Melinda and Carl crazy at first, you end up rooting for their happiness.
"Oh, and if you like hula hoops, naked bodies and rock 'n' roll, then you, along with every man and woman in Southern California, should see it," he said.
Is there any doubt that he's still a clown?
-- Jeff Favre