“Look up, Speak Nicely, and Don’t Twiddle Your Fingers all the Time” runs twice tonight and twice tomorrow night. If you’re thinking of seeing the show, and you’ve read whatever headline is up there or seen the photo they ran, then you already know too much! Stop while you’re behind, and see the thing. I recommend it. That’s all you need to know.
And besides, it’s only one hour. One hour with about 45 seconds of normality — a girl playing innocently with a doll. Then her red-wig-wearing mother barges in, which is a hint that something is seriously off, because two minutes after that, you’re plunged into the surreal, campy world of Little Miss Teacup pageant, where contestants have split personalities, mothers have names like “The Ice Queen,” and men are hilarious — and sexually predatory.
Looking at the set before the show started — at the miniature door, the colorful, ugly 1970s-style clothes rack, the images of eerily made-up young girls being projected onto the wall— I began to wonder how odd a production I was in for. It suddenly occurred to me that it would be about drag queens. It wasn’t. But my premonition was not far off.
The show is half “Alice in Wonderland,” half “Cabaret” — a combination that should give you shudders but unquestionably won the audience over. The plot centers on a 9-year-old girl, Liddy (Sarah Williams DRA ’15), whose mother declares she must take her older sister Alice’s place in the Teacup pageant. Where is Alice? Mom (Celeste Williams DRA ‘15) won’t say.
Now in the world of the pageant, Liddy encounters a parade of outrageous characters. Everything is as new to her as to the people watching her, and so she acts as a tour guide and a stand-in for the audience. She speaks for everyone when, for example, she exclaims, rather 9-year-old-ly, “Everything is very strange and there’s so much happening here.”
Equal parts domineering and desperate, Williams is fantastic as Liddy’s mother. The pageant contestant (Shaunette Renée Wilson DRA ’16) with the split personality and yellow overalls — you know, her? She’s singularly hilarious, if mildly disturbing. The pageant’s MC (Aubie Merrylees DRA ’16), whose creepiness and androgyny are surely modeled on “Cabaret’”s famous MC, gives an appropriately affected performance. The alternate MC, MC Hattah (MC Hammer meets the Mad Hatter, played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II DRA ’15), is a whirlwind of charm. He puts on as bravura a performance as anyone in the show, which is saying a great deal.
“Look up” does have a heart. The janitor (Andrej Visky DRA ’15) emerges as the only sane adult, and his appearance is one of a few moving scenes. But one of the strengths of “Look Up” is that once you’ve settled on an interpretation that suits you, the play subverts your expectations. Just as the show reaches its most fantastical, a reference to Bruce Jenner or a snippet of “Boss Ass Bitch” brings it back to the world of contemporary pop culture. “Look Up” rejects the premise that pop and American culture are mundane, preferring to tease out all the terrible, hilarious strangeness.
Really, the show itself rejects the mundane as a category. It weaves in and out of surreal moments; music and lights change from sentence to sentence. The mother screams at her daughter to pose, saying, “Off with your head! I mean, hand on your head!”
The way time is handled adds to the pile of contradictions: Liddy has half an hour to prepare for the pageant, while “Look Up” has an hour-long running time. The discrepancy could create the effect of drowsy slow-motion, but “Look Up” feels like what theater should feel like — fast, absorbing, dazzling. You have to be in the right mood — and probably of the right disposition — to enjoy this type of farce. I guess I was, because as the show ended, I thought, “I want to hug whoever created this.”