Theater Review: SUCK MY TONGUE (Catharsis Theatre Collective at the Hollywood Fringe Festival)

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by Tony Frankel on June 21, 2024

in Theater-Los Angeles


I have dealt with PR firms for 15 years now, both in (mostly) and out of the arts world. Some may say that public relations is a strategic communication practice that builds mutually beneficial relationships between businesses or individuals and their audience. Sounds good, but advisors, pollsters and media consultants, in my experience, are used for one thing: to maintain a positive public image through press releases and, as of late, social media. When something goes wrong with a client that could affect their career or image (such as Rock Hudson being queer), PR goes on a “spin” — manipulating facts or events to create a specific narrative that benefits a particular party, often at the expense of the truth. It’s called “propaganda” in my book.

But what would your PR firm do if you represented His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet? Sounds easy, given this man of peace and enlightenment has one goal: to heal the world. Writer / director Benjamin Schwartz invented such a firm, one from the West that is visiting the Kuala Lumpur region of Malaysia. The four distinct individuals at this site are: Kelly (Spencer Weitzel), the firm’s owner; Sam (Jaz Dicey), the daughter of a woman Kelly dated, is the social media queen who finds little need to do anything but sit on a couch scrolling through TikTok; Gunner (Brian Graves) is the tough-talking conspiracy theorist; and Bohdi (Ryan Lisman) is the do-gooder, empathetic to the Dalai Lama’s cause.

At curtain, the common goal seems to be managing the boredom of such a no-brainer job. The crisis begins when His Holiness is meeting with a boy at a student event in the northern Indian city of Dharamsala, from where the Dalai Lama has been running a government-in-exile since 1959. It’s February, 2023. The Buddhist master is approached by this boy for a hug. He kisses the child on the lips,  then says “suck my tongue” and sticks his tongue out. The crowd laughs and the leader hugs the child again. The incident — a true story — is caught on video, going from controversial to a viral firestorm faster than you can say “Ghandi.” Fortunately, the boy doesn’t suck.

In six individual vignettes that straddle the line between farce and reality, Schwartz examines not just the world of PR, but how our media-saturated world assumes one guilty until proven innocent, and how disparate beliefs fail to reach compromise (my favorite vignette was an interview by Kelly with the Dalai Lama, hysterically portrayed by an unnamed actress). Bohdi believes that sticking out one’s tongue is a sign of respect or agreement and was often used as a greeting in traditional Tibetan culture. The blasé Sam remains indifferent even as she is energized by influencers calling the incident “creepy” and “disgusting.” Gunner is the bull-headed Westerner. I’m thinking you definitely don’t want this crew handling damage control.

Schwartz is definitely onto something here, but the tension needs to be cubed, his characters need fleshing out and the vignettes demand elongation into a two-act play (it currently runs just under an hour at The Broadwater as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival). Projections on an upstage screen, including the infamous tongue video, add contextual significance. Directed at a fast-paced, high-pitched level, the whole damn thing is so thought-provoking and entertaining that I can forgive the direction of the actors — to a point (Jaz Dicey avoids histrionics). But, hey, this is Fringe, where ideas can be tested out. If Schwartz has the wherewithal to expand his play, and if he lets someone else direct these terrifically cast actors, I won’t be sticking my tongue out at anything.

Suck My Tongue
Catharsis Theatre Collective
part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival
The Broadwater (Black Box), 6322 Santa Monica Blvd.
remaining performances (check for encore run)
Saturday June 22 2024, 5:30
Sunday June 23 2024, 8:00
Saturday June 29 2024, 4:30
for tickets ($15), visit HFF

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