The United States Naval Academy Masqueraders’ production of The Infinite Wrench USNA Style is an unusual show, with lots of humor and some thought-provoking observations. Composed of 30 two-minute plays, each assigned a title and a number, the audience determines the order in each performance by shouting out the number of the play they want to see. Thus, every performance will be slightly different. The goal is to get through every play in 60 minutes or less, and as one of the troupe members explain, “once the clock runs out, we all have to leave.”
A timer at the back of the stage begins counting down, while closer to the front, two long poles form a clothesline on which the numbers are held. As each number is chosen, the troupe takes it down. Part of the excitement comes from wondering if they can really perform all 30 plays before time runs out; by the last play, the suspense is so great even the cast is biting their nails.
The show was inspired by the Masqueraders’ work with members of the Neo-Futurists, one of America’s most highly regarded experimental theater companies. The Neo-Futurists are currently performing a version of The Infinite Wrench in their own theater in Chicago, but this production is totally unique to the Naval Academy. Each play was written by a member of the Masqueraders, and reflects some aspect of the writer’s real life. Several plays came about from interviews with veterans, and help capture a part of their experiences. The plays range broadly in subject matter and tone. Many are funny, some are poignant, and some are abstract dance and movement pieces reflecting a mood. One is a poem about a Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant, with clever rhymes and a touching sentiment. The titles of each play are unusual and wide-ranging as well, including “The Best Advice He Ever Got,” “I Am More Than Your 4 Years of Spanish,” “Monopoly Anime,” “Courtship According to Reef Points,” and “Deb’s Big Three.”
The audience gets involved even beyond shouting out numbers. During several plays, the troupe races through the seats, whispering the secret to happiness to one audience member, asking personal questions to several others, such as “how many people have you kissed?”, and bringing one member onstage to become “the coolest person in the room.” In between plays, while they are preparing for the next one, cast members talk with the audience, joking around with them and keeping up the enthusiasm.
The tone of the show is upbeat and improvisational, starting from the entrance. As audience members walk in, a member of the troupe asks for their names before handing them a name tag with a funny name. My companion was “Early Bird with The Worm,” while I was “Worm.” A Midshipman sitting next to us was “Alexander Hamilton.” At the front of the stage, cast member Frankie Colon plays a variety of danceable music from a DJ stand, complete with large speakers, while the rest of the cast limbers up and prepares for the performance, occasionally grooving to the music. The atmosphere feels more like a club than a theater, and helps gets the audience relaxed and ready to enjoy the show.
The large cast (Hayden Burger, Nick Hajek, Julia Kalshoven, Spencer McVeigh, Reggie Miles, Ali Miller, Daniel Moriarty, McKenna Niemer, Cody Oliphant, Frankie Colon, Allen Sand, Jess Velez, Eli Vernon, and Mike Ware) tackles the material tremendously well, perfectly hitting both the serious and comedic moments. Colon captures the anger and frustration of dealing with people’s shallow fascination with his being from Puerto Rico, as they ask him to “say something in Spanish.” In another play, wearing an apron and wielding a sandal, he strikes Vernon while shouting something in Spanish, then wanders around the audience, angrily brandishing his sandal. Moriarty powerfully and simply explains the joys and challenges of being a Midshipman, while putting on camouflage pants, boots, and a sword. For him, “lying in the mud with a plastic rifle” means he will be prepared if combat truly happens. It is affirming and inspiring. Vernon gives a comically dramatic brief monologue from the balcony.
The cast is incredibly skilled at the physical aspects as well. Miller lies horizontally between two blocks, her hands resting on either one, silent as several others offer harsh critiques. Niemer assembles together a dumbbell and lifts it while talking about her unusual “date nights” with her father. In another play, she relates her various academic accomplishments while the cast follows her around shouting theirs.
The crew (Jacob Pittman, Shenandoah Daigle, Chris Smith, Ruth Snipes-Soward, Jesse DeVries, and Hunter McGavran) works wonderfully to make this production shine. The lighting reflects the mood of each play, changing to blues and purples for some, getting dimmer for others, and at others following one actor around. Besides the countdown timer and clothesline with numbers, various medium sized black boxes are the only other items onstage. These boxes become places for the actors to stand, to comically reveal someone sitting behind them, or in one case, to act as a row of urinals. Costumes are generally shorts, sweatpants, and t-shirts, with parts of military uniforms being used for some plays, as well as a dress, flannel shirts, and boots for others.
Dr. Megan Geigner has done a terrific job as Director of the Masqueraders. The actors work incredibly well together, navigating the stage, each other, and the audience easily and naturally. They quickly set up between plays, and handle the improvising like experts. It all makes for a fun night of laughter and reflection. Only three performances remain, so don’t miss out!
Running Time: One hour, with no intermission.
The Infinite Wrench USNA Style plays from November 10 through November 18, 2017, at Mahan Hall at the United States Naval Academy – 121 Blake Road in Annapolis. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 293-8497 or purchase them online.