Theater / Performance

Rock and Awe: Let’s Start a War! (RUBA Club, 31Mar12)

What they say it is:

Brat resident artist Jess Conda leads us on an exhilarating journey towards the collision of rock and roll and theatre. As local artists and musicians speed towards this intersection, Brat audiences get ready for what can only be an awesome explosion of music, theatre, rock and roll, and art. Get ready for the creation.

      Rock and Awe: Let’s Start a War! is part II of a self-described “guerilla cabaret” (please note, the Brat Production website lists it as part III, though the third installment is slated for June 2012).  This second piece of the cabaret focused on class struggle, manifested most obviously through some huge fight scenes.   
    BRAT productions and Jess Conda’s “Rock and Awe” (think GWB’s shock and awe rhetoric) was a ‘good time’ musical event with a respectable degree of responsible social commentary.  Hey, you’re a snotty Philadelphian, right?  You WANT your night out to include an well-stocked bar, excellent music, naked girls, rioting and policitical class struggle, right?  Oi oi!  

Jess Conda, lead artist (photo from

    Different social classes and societal functions were represented in the play, embodied in the various roles of cook, server, maitre’D, body guard, personal assistant, hangers-on, monied industry, and political bigwigs.  The 99% rebel against the rich and riot in a no-holds-barred brawl.  The lower classes take over–Occupy Philly, you’re jealous, right?–anarchy wins(!) in Let’s Start a War.
    I warn the reader that I really enjoy flamboyant, in-your-face musical theater (i.e. Hedwig and the Angry Inch), so how could I not love a live theater performance featuring Dead Kennedys and political commentary?  Lending the evening a notable touch of class, LSaW included an elegant routine by a (mostly nude, burlesque-style) fan dancer with live harp accompaniment.  She didn’t really fit within the structure of the show (it seemed as if the play’s rich host hired her for the candidate’s entertainment . . . seems out of keeping with the conservative sense of ‘family values’) but nevertheless, she was a stand out performance, concluding her fan dance in a pose reminiscent of the Birth of Venus.  
    With respect to the staging, the only suggestion I have would be in terms of house management.  Getting into the venue was challenging due to a double booking at the Ruba Club, leading to a line snaking around the block and resulting in a late start time.  The event also seemed to be oversold (a lack of seating resulted in significant standing room crowd),  which might have been fine if the extra audience didn’t interfere with the show.  Unfortunately, the players were moving in, around, and through the audience, often standing for minutes at a time among the seating rows.  This meant that the audience often ended up with blocked views and some awkward interactions with active cast members struggling to play out their roles.  
    After having seen this second installment, I’m bummed that I missed the first part of the series, and will be sure to keep my ears peeled for more episodes.  (Given that the upcoming third section is based in the music of The White Stripes, I wonder if Clay might bow out on this one).


I found this one on Funsavers and the combination of RUBA Club and cheapness (tickets were $6 after the Funsaver discount) made it a perfect combo for our Saturday night entertainment.  I’d wanted to visit RUBA for a while, and the show description sounded strange enough to meet my (admittedly flexible) criteria for non-boredom.

RUBA Club is a cool dive-bar-meets-dive-theater serving in-the-know Philadelphians.

           Tara did her review first, which, in this case, is fitting, since a critique should always frontload the positives—meaning I should follow, since I wasn’t particularly thrilled with Rock and Awe.  I’m not disappointed that I went, and the price was certainly right, but the presentation was weaker than I’d prefer, the (sung) vocals were too loud (I rarely understood what anyone was saying), and though I often enjoy a “throw it all in the pot and see what happens” kind of approach, I felt like this show failed to clearly explain what, exactly, it was trying to do.  

            AsTara mentions, the room was overcrowded and lacked seats for at least 20 attendees.  I can go either way on this, since the ambiance of the show is clearly a chaotic, raucous vibe, but in practice, it felt like an amateur oversight.  The setting of the room was, however, nicely done—RUBA’s upstairs theater isn’t the showiest venue, but with walls and stage covered in red curtains and cocktail tables with matching table fixtures, the room took on the intended feel of a (semi) classy dinner theater.  Though confusing at first, I did like the effect of faux waiters, bouncers, and stage managers moving through the aisles, though I couldn’t help but feel that some of these cast members were underutilized and didn’t do a whole lot of actual performing.

            As far as the music goes, I “get it” that the group was using classic punk to emphasize the show’s 99% theme, but I didn’t think that the band sounded very good.  Too practiced to affect real anarchy, too staid in their seated stage layout, the lead actress was left to carry the entire revolution on her admittedly-capable shoulders (she definitely has the moves and pipes).  Unfortunately, by the time she crescendoed to stamping on tables and belting out the heavy-duty lyrics, I’d already lost much of my interest in the whole production.  In simplest terms, the music didn’t really move me, and most songs felt too flat or underwhelming to really achieve the goals of the plot.  Given that the whole show was set as musical theater, problems with the music really sank the entire ship for this reviewer.  Like Tara, I liked the harpist and strip-tease-feather-dance routine, but I totally agree that this item felt out-of-place (perhaps creating an unfavorable comparison for the rest of the numbers).  

Jess Conda can definitely sing, no doubt about it.

            Ending on a positive note, I thought the ambitiousness of the show was worth seeing, I (naturally) identified with the mockery of the rich, moneyed (i.e. Republican) classes, and the fact that RUBA kept the bar open during the entire show suited me just fine.  Notes for next time:  please sell tickets according to the number of available seats, and maybe work on ways for the band to better reflect the spirit of the show.



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