Test Market Theater Will Not Beg for Your Attention

This avant-garde company won’t compromise its soul to meet box-office goals. Long live naked rabbis, satanic worshippers and metaphors with legs!

Steve Bornfeld

He's in a black-leather harness, kneeling before her, script between his teeth, her foot on his neck.

Can we get an amen for Vegas community theater?

You were expecting Kiss Me, Kate? Expand your minds, theater-going lemmings. Try Whip Me, Kate. (Imagine the double-entendre musical opportunities: "Another openin', another show. ..." ) Yes, we're—you should excuse the expression—yankin' your chain. They were only riffing for our photographer in that pose, when we asked Ernest Hemmings and Francine Gordon, directors of Downtown's Test Market, to brainstorm ideas to visually illustrate their alternative approach to theater.

You get the idea. Mainstream they ain't.

Every city's got 'em. Theatrical bizarros. Defiant dudes who won't dance on the strings pulled by establishment prudes. Stage revolutionaries who recognize the score of Hello Dolly! as the devil's music.

Who the hell are they, this dynamic—some might say deranged—duo from Baltimore (him) and Cleveland (her) who stage guerilla theater out of a leftover gallery barely bigger than the average Summerlin bathroom, in the SEAT (Social Experimentation & Absurd Theater) at the Arts Factory, with its cramped, Off-Off-Broadway-meets-un-un-glamorous bohemian chic, the sets often little more than white risers resembling Styrofoam from an oversized mail-order product?

"How big is your brain?" he says of the fans they seek. "Let's shovel some more in."

They're the people willing to offend your momma and disgust your papa if there's the chance of challlenging you.

"We've performed to an audience of one," Gordon says. "We don't pander to audiences like a theater just trying to fill seats. We'll say, 'We want to do this, it's excellent theater, whoever comes, enjoy.'"

They're the people who relentlessly think outside that damned, cliched, creatively bankrupt box, even when results don't reward the risk. They stubbornly cling to the 'tude that purity of art trumps the benefits of commerce, even though commerce keeps art's heart a-pumpin'.

"Test Market means it's a test," says Francine, 31. "It's a test for our actors, and for our audience."

"And we're testing ourselves," pipes in Ernest, 29, "not being afraid to try something beyond our reach."

Are they impractical? Certainly. Unrealistic? Absolutely. Maybe even arrogant for fostering an air of artistic superiority in a culture where commercialism sets the agenda, especially when their eccentric trips into the theatrical fringe go off the rails as often as not (this critic has been less than enchanted more than once)? Perhaps.

Yet no serious theater city should be without its purists. Its cock-eyed optimists. Its foolish dreamers. Even if they're doomed to fail, they're fated to inspire. That's worth more than any packed house to the heart of the theater community at large.

They're committed theater geeks, these two; one with a degree in theater who had written for small sketch-comedy shows and toured towns with various partners, staging absurdist road shows (he); one with twin degrees in English who pursued acting until accepting that one can't earn a living auditioning, switching to teaching high school in Cleveland (she).

Two and a half years ago, he popped up in the desert. "Change has always blossomed out of the desert," he says. "This is a youthful town, there aren't any rules set."

They met online, discovering their shared passion. He proffered an invitation to the Land of Cacti and Neon. She took a leap—more like a pole-vault—of faith. "When he picked me up at the airport, I wore a dark wig," says the slender blonde, "because if he looked a little too crazy, I was going to get right back on the plane."

Now they are such things as an original balls-out concoction called The Shande of Rabbi Schlemazel: Schtup a Nafka in Tuchas, Alevai. What's that, you ask? For those a bit skittish with Yiddish, the subtitle means: F--k a Whore in the Ass, It Should Only Happen (so glad you asked). The story of a (fleetingly nude) rabbi under the spell of a transvestite satanic worshipper was flacked on their godsexandbowling.com website, performed in mid-Passover, one particular evening to only four people—two pals of the duo, one critic and one perplexed patron—then to busloads of elderly women from synagogue sisterhood groups.

To ogle a rabbi, a man of The Torah, with his schmeckel (take a guess) waving in the breeze? You know what we're thinking: Oy, vey, bubbeleh.

"They loved it—they signed on for the mailing lists," Ernest exclaims. "Only the Satan worshippers were pissed off when they came. We made up the whole ritual and it wasn't accurate enough for them."

They're Lions Lost in Translation, about a flesh-and-blood man who thinks he's turning into a metaphor of himself, penned by UNLV alum Erik Ramsey and performed to three people one First Friday night, including this writer, with whom it left a migraine to remember it by.

"That's OK," says Ernest, his raucous, wicked laugh pinballing off the walls. "We don't expect everyone to love everything we do. But wouldn't it be wonderful if we had a real theater district Downtown? Vegas has that potential to drive a writer's market. We could have something come from here, instead of always bringing in a Blue Man Group or a Cirque. We could be an export community, as opposed to always being an import community."

They're Eric Bogosian's Pounding Nails in the Floor with My Forehead and Ernest's Die, Motherf--ker, Die! and Daneil Goldfarb's Adam Baum and the Jew Movie and Sam Shepard's Fool for Love and Ronnie Larsen's Sleeping with Straight Men and a Samuel Beckett festival and Peter Shaffer's equine-erotic Equus and Vampire Lesbians of Sodom.

"We've been approached by a lot of people who are willing to pay for the space, and we can use the money," Ernest admits. "But we don't want to see their faces because we don't want to see Bye-Bye Birdie here. We may seem crazy or nutty, but we do have a level of integrity."

They're the place to catch Psycho Beach Party and Shopping and F--king (can't wait for that one on the marquee). They're avant-garde films and guest performance artists and everything ... absurd.

"A beef I have is that so many plays might as well be movies or sitcoms," Ernest says. "The whole point of theater is to tax the imagination, give the audience an experience. Things that, when you leave the theater, you feel like your brain has grown a little bit. The people who come out to see us, I would rather meet 10, 20 people a month who are in our frame of mind than have a thousand people who have no clue."

They're the ones who missed cues and screwed up lines performing David Mamet's Oleanna, and not only apologized to the audience, but relayed a mea-culpa statement to the press—a clever expression of regret-cum-promotion. "If we screw up," Ernest says, "we want the audience to know that they haven't really seen this play, that we can do better or there's better out there and they shouldn't settle. We see shows in town, and they're crap, and we see these people greeted after the show, like, 'Oh, you were wonderful!' And I'm like, 'You've never been to a play before, have you?'"

They're the ones who declare that no patrons will be admitted once the clock strikes 8, even when someone admitted at 8:05 would up the audience count to two. "I don't want to stand by the door biting my fingernails wondering if one more person will get here," Ernest says. "If you don't get here by 8, you can come to another show. It's disruptive. A bright light coming into the theater when the door opens, it's rude to people who were on time. It's a courtesy thing."

They're the ones who, despite financial pressures—costs can run $4,000-$7,000 per month, what with rent, actors' pay and insurance, while they reject outside funding to retain creative control, and often prop up the theater on their take-home pay from full-time jobs as a tech-support specialist for DirecTV (he) and technical editor for the Yucca Mountain Project (she)—are the only theater in town to stage shows year-round at such a breathless pace, plowing through the summer months others take off, with performances four nights a week, sometimes twice nightly.

"It's kind of become a mission from God," Ernest says. "We want to make it a for-profit entity that creates art and doesn't have to pander to any group and survives on its own."

They are, in short, fevered idealists of theater, uncowed by the demons of commerce. Even when the audience isn't enough to stock a bowling team.

They embody that eternal question: If a theater company crops up in our forest but no one goes, does it make a noise? Yes, it does. We've got to make the effort to hear it.

"We didn't come here to be comfortable," Ernest declares. "We have an agenda, a goal we wanna meet, and we're not going to get there if we pussyfoot around. Some nights are dead, some nights are packed, but the people who are coming are experimental and into what we're doing. If they see it and they're blown away, that fills my heart with joy."

A fervent "Amen" is all we can say.

Ernest, thank God, has changed out of the harness.

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