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Entertainment & Arts

Review: Capitalism as a sideshow fleece: That’s ‘Captain Greedy’s Carnival’ by the Actors’ Gang

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“Captain Greedy’s Carnival” tests the market economy at the Actors’ Gang.
(Ashley Randall)

The Actors’ Gang is currently populated by conjurers, strongmen, snake charmers, fat ladies and headless wonders associated with a sideshow known as “Captain Greedy’s Carnival” — or, to use its more conventional name: capitalism.

“They all reveal secrets that can make you rich beyond your wildest dreams,” a barker promises the crowds lining up in Culver City. Read the fine print, though. The show’s subtitle is “A Musical Nightmare.” Listen to its good-sounding lies and you’ll be just another willing mark.

After business and banking regulations are blown up by cannon, wild-eyed Reverend Profit leads a prayer for “the creation of an unprecedented explosion of wealth.” Gluttonously rotund Madame Mammon stuffs her brassiere with bills as she chortles, “Watch me slip through the cracks / ’Cause I won’t have to pay tax.”

That’s not how things work, though, for an ordinary family (portrayed by actors who’ve entered the carnival alongside the rest of us). At a rigged roulette wheel, they’re taxed at a higher rate than businesses or the wealthy, then, via shell game, suckered into subprime mortgages. Cue: the market crash of 2008.

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The Actors’ Gang is known for sociopolitical theater, and “Captain Greedy” certainly fills the bill. Performed with gusto, the show gets off to a rousing start, but despite the clever setup, the ideas here are hardly novel, nor are they presented with the least subtlety. The broad acting style doesn’t accommodate much variation, either. And though they suit the material, the songs — oompah carnival tunes, 1930s novelty numbers and a touch of country-blues — don’t make much of an impression.

At a recent Friday performance, the packed house buzzed at first with high spirits but slumped as the show proceeded with predictable sameness.

The script and lyrics are by Jack Pinter, a U.S.-born, London-based writer, and the melodies are by Englishman Roger Eno, whose ambient music has been heard in such places as the “Trainspotting” soundtrack. (Yes, he’s brother to Brian.)

The red and white stripes of a sideshow tent are resourcefully projected onto encircling white cloth, as are such images as racing stock tickers and onslaughts of corporate logos (designed by Cihan Sahin).

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Slick, smooth-talking Captain Greedy can juggle, balance and do magic tricks — all calculated to impress as well as distract. Dressed in a sumptuous velvet cutaway that’s part ringmaster’s outfit, part smoking jacket, Will Thomas McFadden — who’s also the show’s director — portrays him with twinkling eyes and a mischievous smile.

The captain’s right-hand man, the Fakir, is played in clownface by Bob Turton in an eruption of cartoon voices and rubber-faced expressions. Madame Mammon’s amusing appearances are performed in a husky voice by Mary Eileen O’Donnell with choice bits of burlesque.

Overall, though, the dancing and especially the singing are just this side of painful. Rarely do the 17 performers wander within a country mile of the proper pitch.

In the second half, Captain Greedy disguises himself as a braying general of business who vows to “make this carnival great again,” followed shortly by a song about the rich getting richer.

By then, the show has long since made its point and is running thin on carnival acts to parody. The law of diminishing returns kicks in, a force as immutable in theater as in a market economy. Score one for capitalism.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘Captain Greedy’s Carnival’

Where: The Actors’ Gang, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, ends Nov. 11

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Tickets: $34.99; Thursdays, pay what you can

Info: (310) 838-4264, www.theactorsgang.com

Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes

daryl.miller@latimes.com

Twitter: @darylhmiller

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