Laura is a director.
I’ll start with what’s in my pockets: I had never seen Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s film, before I made plans to see this show. I watched the movie right before I drove to the theatre on Friday night. So the film was probably fresher in my mind than it might have been for my fellow audience members. I did find myself wondering throughout the show what the experience of watching it might have been like for someone who had never seen the film. I think there would definitely be a sense of missing some crucial references, but there is enough physical comedy, clowning of iconic actors and clever prop work to make it really enjoyable, if a little confusing.
Chris Davis is a lot of fun to watch and is a really smart comedian. I would have probably enjoyed this show if it was just a straight recreation of some of his favorite scenes from Apocalypse Now. And there is plenty of that. The joy in watching Davis’s impressions does not come from his accuracy in embodying his characters, but from the way he takes the most recognizable features of each performer and exaggerates—Martin Sheen’s thousand-yard squint, Robert Duvall’s yelling, the plodding pace of Marlon Brando’s raspy whisper.
But this show is more than just imitations. It also makes fun of the venerated film and of the way we worship it; it lays bare some of the absurdity of the gravitas associated with the movie and with its cast of revered white male actors. This is done, at first, by simple comparison. The film begins with Martin Sheen’s character waking up in a dingy hotel room and his voiceover lamenting that he is still in Saigon. One-Man Apocalypse Now begins with Davis waking up and mouthing along to Sheen’s recorded voiceover. Taken out of Coppola’s moody lighting and placed in Davis’s brightly-lit playing space, the dramatic weight of the text is undercut. As the show proceeds, the lampooning of white male gravitas is even more explicit: there’s a solid and uncomfortable joke about the deaths of two of Martin Sheen’s crew members and a call-out to a Philadelphia actor’s Barrymore-studded career. Ultimately, Marlon Brando’s notoriously erratic behavior is held up as the quintessential example of actorly indulgence (with Dennis Hopper’s manic photojournalist character painted as his committed disciple).
Davis and director Mary Tuomanen do a lot with very little—the set is spare, essentially just a mattress that serves as both a bed and a boat and a few simple props and costume pieces scattered throughout the space to facilitate quick character changes. The show runs a tight 60 minutes and the pacing feels deliberate, never rushed. Some jokes are stretched out and splashed around in for a good long while; other times the humor comes from frenetic physical comedy. Adriano Shaplin’s sound design brings just the film’s sounds into the room mostly through selected audio clips, but also with the whirring of a very visible onstage fan.
One-Man Apocalypse Now is a deeply fun way to spend an hour, and it’s a good reminder to sometimes check your hero-worship. In the end, Brando, Duvall, Hopper and Davis are just pretending.