FINDING CHEEZBURGER AT THE THEATER
In a not-too-distant dystopian future in which lolcats are humans’ only form of communication, the epic LOLPERA – a lolcat pop opera – links our memes into a new religion for the Internet age. Ellen Warkentine and Andrew Pedroza’s inspired new work manages to provoke, disturb, and endlessly entertain. The LOLs echo far beyond the theater, and the catchy refrain “Ceiling cat is watching you masturbate, masturbate” may just haunt your next online excursions.
With a nod to Jerry Springer the Opera’s incisive critique of American popular culture, LOLPERA begins with a solemn chorus of self-absorbed humans parading down the center aisle of the theater and LOLing to themselves. Their heads are bent over their glowing cell phone screens, which only illuminate their faces in the darkened space. The operatic harmonies of their LOLs parodically elevate the lolcat meme to a cultural object of sublime significance. From the conductor’s stand, Ceiling Cat (the glittering, physically effusive Steve Sornbutnark) observes this strangely familiar, masturbatory ritual of seeking pleasure, self-illumination, and the cosmic meaning of life on our tiny technology, one which is connected through the Internets.
This opening image – deftly constructed by director Angela Lopez – lays an awe-inspiring groundwork for the ensuing LOLPERA. Warkentine and Pedroza’s libretto may have begun as a cute concept to make music from memes, but they sustain and develop this collage of found images and phrases into a remarkable two hour opera, framed by an epic battle of Ceiling Cat vs. Basement Cat.
While the God-like Ceiling Cat conducts the band, the devilish Basement Cat (masterfully performed by Angel Correa and cleverly costumed by Cat Elrod to resemble the Hamburgler) seduces the lolcats on earth with promises of the ever elusive cheezburger. The desire that galvanized the lolcat phenomenon – “I can has cheezburger?” – is accordingly reprised throughout the opera. With each repetition, cheezburger’s meaning expands to signify much more than cheap fast food.
The pitiable Gutter Cat (Dinah Steward) may long for literal sustenance, but Astro Cat (the hilarious Michael Burdge) blasts off to find a more metaphysical cheezburger – perhaps the meaning of life itself. Precious Cat (Sayaka Miyatani) and Happy Cat (Alie Gibbons) almost attain a state of cheezburger in love. Meanwhile Lolrus, the hysterical Anthony Pedroza as a moustached walrus, is more concerned with finding his bukkit than a cheezburger.
At the heart of the show is Dreamer Cat (the outstanding Andrew Pedroza), an aspirational young kitteh who starts working a corporate job under Serious Cat (the commanding Ashley Elizabeth Allen). The conniving Basement Cat soon draws Dreamer Cat to the dark side with promises of unlimited cheezburgers produced by a machine.
Dreamer Cat’s plight is not unlike the audience’s own: being lured by the promise of infinite happiness and fulfillment in technology. Ceiling Cat and Basement Cat, music and machine, may be fighting a battle for our souls as much as for the lolcats’. The very structure of LOLPERA forces the audience to confront the fragmentation and isolation of our increasingly mediatized culture; our attention is continually torn between the live onstage action and synchronized projections of lolcat images from which each line originated. The layered aesthetics are constantly at war, yet simultaneously inextricable from one another.
The core cast of quirky lolcats is bolstered by an ensemble who add significantly to the sound but sometimes seem cramped on the small stage; Lopez’s direction could benefit from a minimization of moving parts in this particular space. Music direction of the show could also be cleaned, and better sound design would enable all the layered parts to be heard; in a few instances, I saw a lyric on the projections that was inaudible in the performance. Although the current cast is dynamic and committed, several roles will need to be recast for stronger voices as this pop opera proceeds into its promising future.
Yet these minor production blips in no way diminish this visionary new work. LOLPERA’s greatest triumph may be the sheer feat of getting the audience to turn off their cell phones for two hours, to celebrate and critique contemporary popular culture, and to share their LOLs at the theater. For that riotous and blissful moment, you can has cheezburger.
photos by Matt Kollar
part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival
ends on June 24, 2012
for tickets, visit LOLPERA