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STREAMING THEATER REVIEW All-One! The Dr. Bronner's Plays
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2020-05-04

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Playwright: Beth Hyland

At: The Passage Theatre on-line at ThePassageTheatre.com . Tickets: pay-what-you-can ( suggested donation $15 ). Runs through: May 17

You can still see Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps displayed in drugstores today, albeit not conspicuously. This brand of "castile" soap—distinguishable from other ablutive agents by the absence of animal products and chemical additives in its composition—is immediately identifiable by its faux gilded-age labels, liberally embellished with esoteric tracts gleaned from its inventor's manifesto of spiritual enlightenment.

What we know of Emanuel Bronner's life comprises a saga beginning with his flight from Nazi Germany to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where his efforts to re-establish the family soap-making trade were hindered by increasingly erratic behavior leading to his incarceration in a mental hospital. After undergoing electroshock therapy, he escaped in 1949, finding refuge and support for his utopian business practices and mystical cosmological views among the notoriously freethinking citizens of Southern California.

Even with the inclusion of vintage film footage depicting the visionary huckster himself, only a fraction of our narrative concerns itself with his mercurial career, however—author Beth Hyland being more interested in the philosophical questions raised by a product promising near-unlimited utility as a metaphor for Bronner's dream of a unified society. Under the pretext of demonstrating the many uses for castile soap ( washing individual body parts, disinfecting a variety of surfaces, repelling household vermin, perfuming the surrounding air, etc. ), the characters veer off-topic to share their own thoughts thereupon.

Of course, when the Passage Theatre ensemble first embarked on their project, they never suspected that circumstances would necessitate its being staged as a series of monologues performed by ten performers quartered in wholly separate locations. Ironically, the re-scoring of Hyland's text for on-line broadcast makes for unobstructed transitions and uncluttered stage/screen pictures facilitating a surprisingly agile pace, even during moments demanding multiple-voiced dialogue or fourth-wall audience interaction.

Most of the scenes are presented in stationary-camera spoken-word solo mode, to be sure, but a few are sung to live instrumental accompaniment, one is augmented by salsa-dancing with a kitchen apron, and another is whispered in full blackout ( with sound effects ). A diatribe on laundry features the speaker washing his clothes while still wearing them, an ode to the persistence of olfactory recall is lent additional intimacy by the poet's close-up delivery and the kinetic complexity of bathing a dog becomes even funnier when the canine is an inflatable toy.

Despite its fragmented infrastructure, this is first and foremost an ensemble undertaking, worthy of collective commendations for rehearsals conducted in solitary increments and home appliances hastily rendered photogenic. If any single team member deserves star billing, that honor falls to Evelyn Landow, whose video editing stitches together the diverse components so seamlessly that the 80-minute telecast slides along smoothly as though recorded in a single session.


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