Portland Center Stage Portland Oregon Events

#////# review: con job



“Want some candy, little girl?”

Any good con job, whether hooking a future junkie or a theater audience depends on great acting. I said “Yes,” grabbed the candy, then allowed Pratik Motwani to roller-coaster me through his 75-minute short course on how to become an addict in his latest creation — #//<EMBEDDED>//#, playing through this Sunday at CoHo’s Summerfest. Only two performances left — run, don’t walk. This is a terrific con job.

It’s the sly story of a nebbish mama’s boy recently moved to America from India. For his birthday his mommy, who lives in India, sends him a card, an orange shirt, and a cell phone. Probably among the three worst things to send a lonely 20-something unsupervised male. In lieu of connecting with the real world, the ugly duckling with huge buck teeth creates an online virtual version of himself and throws this upgraded swan on the virtual wall to see if it sticks.

Pratik Motwani stars in ‘Embedded’ at Coho Summerfest.

Motwani portrays both roles in this solo show. Cinnamon 1 is the living, breathing, lonely mama’s boy videorecorded and projected on the center screen above the stage, with whom Cinnamon 2 interacts. Motwani performs live the role of Cinnamon 2, the avatar, interacting with impeccable timing with the video. (Think about how much rehearsal this required to memorize the pauses and inflections in the video.) Motwani pongs between hip strings of naughty emanating from the declaiming Cinnamon 2 (“Ice Ice Icicles, spec spec spectacles, test test testicles. Woah, this mic is turned on!”) and searing lonely decresendoing salutations to his mom, unable to hang up: “Bye mommy. Bye. Bye bye bye bye?”

Sound design frames this multimedia extravaganza of lighting, projections, mime, dance, acting. From the beginning scrapings heard in the dark to the iconic cell phone rings or Super Mario Brothers theme or “likes” racking up, we’re conditioned to respond as with Wagner’s leitmotifs. When the phone rings it’s mommy so get offline! When the bell dings, it’s an adoring fan! So happy! Stay online! All this in addition to dance music like the “Bidet Mambo.”

Motwani, a wiry, Mumbai-born California theater artist who has appeared in Imago Theatre’s Frogz and ZooZoo, is a precise, exuberant dancer. He looks a lot like Pivot Animator figures in motion when learning how to move as a virtual creation. Trippy projections corkscrewing us down a hole into virtual hell or escalating us back up to mommy’s phone call abetted the sound. Lights going up in the audience when the show went LIVE or the shadow images of Cinnamon 2 behind a screen mimicking Cinnamon one in the real world weren’t just cool effects. This was intelligent theater that kept us hooked, addicted… conned.

Motwani morphs. Cinnamon 2, the virtual character, dressed in a white bodysuit, moves like a mime when first created by Cinnamon 1. As he becomes more dimensional, shedding the white gloves, the white socks, he tries on blue coats, polka-dot shirts and pants — stuff found in a wardrobe from an animator program. He moves less like a Pivot Animator stick figure and more like a real human. Cinnamon 1, the nebbish, disintegrates from a neat and tidy control freak whose best friends include a goldfish and a plant to a surly alcoholic who forgoes feeding his friends in order to log into his virtual show.

The writing showed rather than told… except at the very end when it completes the move from after school special to a black mirror episode — and where I cringed at some preachy florid moralizing. Some of the jokes went on a little long. But in the context of Cinnamon 1’s online show with his virtual character, Cinnamon 2, and given Motwani’s authoritative acting / conning (getting us in the audience to chant back with verve how to wipe our bungs following different types of bowel movements), those jokes totally proved how easy it is to “like” total fluff. And we, via our laughter, applause, (“liking”) and chanting, contributed to building Cinnamon 1’s self-esteem based on nothing. It’s a tragic arc, as any addiction is, and here, wickedly entertaining. Motwani’s Cinnamon 2 is a virtual salesman, a talk show host who starts out sweet but as he gains power and color, donning bear rug coats and polka-dot pants, becomes slicker, more confident and … well, to say more would spoil the fun.

I’d buy a bridge in the Sahara Desert from Pratik Motwani! I wanted to take  Cinnamon 1, the hopelessly inept nerd who couldn’t open a can of beans, home with me and feed him lentils and rice. I wanted to, no wait, I DID do as Cinnamon 2 demanded! As with so much of what happens online in the age of the commercialized soul destroying social internet, you know it will all end in tears, and you STILL sell your soul to the candy man!

#//<EMBEDDED>//# continues with performances at 7:30 pm Saturday and Sunday, July 14-15 at CoHo Theater’s Summerfest2257 NW Raleigh Street, Portland. Tickets online or (503) 220-2646. Hear interviews with Motwani from Artslandia below and KBOO’s Stage & Screen above.

Portland pianist Maria Choban, ArtsWatch’s Oregon ArtsBitch, blogs at CatScratch.

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