It seems that something odd is happening in this `Motel'

Review: The misinterpretation of an Eagles' hit is more silly than satisfying.

October 20, 2001|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Motel California is about a man who misinterprets the lyrics of an Eagles song. So any misinterpretation of this enigmatic season-opener at the Theatre Project is strictly in keeping with the theme of the show.

And this thin, two-person piece - written and performed by Richard Harrington and former Baltimorean Chris Kauffman - is so peculiar in so many respects, misinterpretation is inevitable. The one thing that can be said with certainty is that Motel California is silly. But silly is not necessarily funny. Sometimes - and this is definitely one of those times - it's just plain odd.

Silliness is a logical attribute for two performers who met at a clown workshop. But it's hardly a characteristic you would associate with a hired killer, which is what Harrington's character becomes.

But let's start at the beginning.

Kauffman - who wears a black wool cap, a knit Henley shirt (a pun on Eagles lead singer Don Henley?), khakis and running shoes - introduces himself as someone named Nhar. He then spears a fork through the edge of a Styrofoam plate, holds it aloft and launches into a raspy rendition of "Blue Moon." It's rather endearing, in a childlike (or more precisely, childish) way, and that could be said for this entire 55-minute show, which attempts to make up in whimsy for what it lacks in wit.

After we meet Harrington's character, who dresses in a shirt and tie and inexplicably calls himself "Gustave Flaubert," the proceedings become even more childish. If the material were more sophisticated, the approach might be called stream-of-consciousness; as it is, it seems more like two little boys playing make-believe.

Harrington plays a small accordion; he awards a bottle of beer to a member of the audience; he relates Gustave's life story - from boyhood in Belgium, to misguided inspiration from the Eagles song (heard in Nepal), to murder in Colombia, and on to the present in Baltimore. Kauffman provides props, sound effects and muddled mimed demonstrations before wrapping things up with another rendition of "Blue Moon."

What does it all mean?

Well, it could be seen as a cautionary tale about the danger of misinterpreting mystical/spiritual messages (a theme that gives the show a certain topicality). Or, it could simply be suggesting that art is open to all sorts of meanings. But frankly, looking for deep meaning in this nonsensical material is as preposterous as looking for wisdom in pop songs played backward.

A final word about the title. Harrington and Kauffman originally called their show Hotel California, after the 1970s hit song that plays such a crucial role in the plot. A letter from the Eagles' lawyers led them to change the title and include a lengthy disclaimer in the program.

In a way, the new title is more appropriate. After all, this is a show about someone who gets everything wrong - and it's more than a little off.

`Motel California'

Where: Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St.

When: 8 p.m. tonight and Oct. 25-27

Tickets: $12

Call: 410-752-8558

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