Who Killed Dick Watson? Culture Clash will get to the bottom of the infamous disappearance of an enthusiastic but inept stage manager in the summer of ’46, at the 28th Annual L.A. Weekly Theater Awards, Monday, April 9, at Avalon, 1735 Vine Street. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.; show starts at 7:30. Tickets, $18.50. Purchase tickets at laweekly.com/theaterawards Post-show reception included. Queries: (323) 993-3693.In 1980, magazine covers warned their readers that “The Sixties Are 20 Years Old.” Today, the ’60s are closing in on the big Five-O yet their grip on the pop imagination shows no sign of slackening, even as some argue over exactly when the decade truly began. (John F. Kennedy’s election? His assassination? The Beatles’ first U.S. tour?) After watching Brian Fretté’s action farce, The Defenders, we might believe that this adored and loathed era began with the British TV series The Avengers. Fretté’s loving spoof, currently produced by the Zoo District at [Inside] the Ford, is a tongue-in-cheek salute to all things cheeky, witty and unapologetically eccentric. In other words, everything we associate with a golden age.
Fretté, who also directs, stars as Secret Agent St. John Smythe, a decadent symbol of swinging London in the 1960s, even though the story is set in the cell-phone-armed and post–Berlin Wall present. He is partial to lounging at home in a kimono while exchanging philosophical barbs and karate kicks with his blind Japanese servant (Jerri Tubbs). St. John works for a government spy agency called the Registry and gets his orders from Auntie, a “male” wooden dummy who grows increasingly at odds with his ventriloquist, the wheelchair-bound Bertram Paddington Gordon (Joe Seely). Regardless of who’s really calling the shots, St. John’s assignment is to team up with his old Iron Curtain nemesis Carrington Lovegrove (Christine Deaver) and track down a mysterious genius named Dr. Tzu (Rainbow Underhill). Tzu is a Chinese scientist who’s fled to the West with a formula for breeding a species of indestructible human.
To proceed further here with a “plot” summary would be like describing the dramatic arc of wallpaper. The show’s fun (and frustration) lies in its refusal to obey the laws of narrative gravity. Most of this 90-minute one-act’s 15 scenes involve St. John or Lovegrove lurking under cover or getting into martial-arts combat with masked opponents. These moments gather their frisson from their characters’ arch dialogue (“I was killed before I could get the papers,” sighs one operative after a failed attempt at retrieving Dr. Tzu’s formula) or their equally droll wardrobe choices — ninja blacks for St. John, Homburg and chalk stripes for Bertram and flaming-red pantsuit for St. John’s ex-flame, Camilla Fairchilde (Kristi Schultz). Fretté manages to pack in many tropes from the 1960s’ TV and movie cloak-and-dagger craze, especially when it comes to sexual warfare.
The great spy fad was, of course, driven by novelist Ian Fleming’s series of thrillers featuring his hero James Bond — who originated in a novel and then became a highly successful comic-strip character. Like another newspaper cartoon creation, Modesty Blaise (the criminal adventuress whose origin was a displaced-persons camp), Bond was a survivor of World War II who did business during the depths of the Cold War. The Bond novels’ WASP xenophobia (Fleming’s villain Dr. No was simply Fu Manchu without the mustache) and their rogue crime empire, SPECTRE, played to a readership still recovering from war with the Axis powers and in search of “third forces” to counter what seemed like a pell-mell race to a nuclear holocaust.
By the early 1960s, however, Bond and his vodka-and-vermouth existentialism were being supercharged and ultimately spoofed by a younger and more nihilistic generation. If 007 was an old-school clotheshorse tailored by Savile Row, his campy successors were off-the-rack Carnaby Street hedonists like John Steed and Emma Peel, the British TV heroes of The Avengers. And, while Bond might have seemed like a Cold War knight serving Western policies, to Steed and Peel (and, later, Patrick MacGoohan’s Number 6 in The Prisoner) there were no such things as friends and allies — only people who at best might not try to kill you.
Such nonchalant agnosticism reflected the deep distrust with which many Britons regarded their government when it came to secrets and security, thanks to the smothering vagueness of their country’s Official Secrets Act, London’s suppression of news about operations during World War II, and the treachery of Kim Philby and his friends. (One could make a case for tracing it all the way back to the conspiracies and plots of Plantagenet England.)
If this paranoid palimpsest is missing from Fretté’s canvas, at least he has the surfaces of this caricature world down pat, one well-realized by Katrina Coulourides’ black-and-white set, Johnny Apollo’s costumes, and composer Chad Habig’s sax-and-vibes spy score (although it sometimes drowns out the dialogue). Fretté’s actors clearly enjoy their work, and he and Deaver (a forbidding figure in black whose heavyset frame subverts our expectations of a svelte party girl in a leather cat suit) capture the sexual minefield that all mod spies negotiated.
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By the end, though, we’re left shrugging, Why? Even granting that the ’60s have been with us much longer than anyone imagined, there seems little payoff in spoofing a spoof, and besides, for years now these very same types of period homages have been appearing on movie screens (Austin Powers) and on local stages (Shag: The Musical and Dry Cleaning). The Defenders opens with a montage of mayhem and panache as our heroes dispatch a series of would-be assassins in church confessionals, restaurants, or even while standing at urinals. It’s a sugar-rush moment of sight and music that quickly fades as it becomes apparent that the show is all dressed up but has no place to go from here.
A show like this one needs to fly by, but, instead, the evening drags on in a tiresome string of Fretté-choreographed fight ballets. After seeing The Defenders, we may still not know where the ’60s began, but we sure know when we want them to end.
THE DEFENDERS | By BRIAN FRETTÉ | Zoo District at [INSIDE] THE FORD, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hlywd. | Through March 24 | (323) 461-3673