Thomas Blake Jr. is feeling the need, the need for speed. On March 17, the mind behind the experimental Los Angeles theater gems Point Break Live and Terminator, Too: Judgement Play unleashes his newest interactive stage show, the Tom Cruise satire Tom Gun Live, at DTLA's Regent Theater. Schadenfreude-seeking audiences hoping to laugh at a lampooning of the famous Scientologist trampolining on Oprah's couch should be aware that this production focuses less on the man and more on the movie star.
"This is really an homage to Tom Cruise and everything he’s done," Blake explains during a Tom Gun Live rehearsal earlier this month at West Hollywood's CAZT studios. "There’s all this negative stuff about his personal life, and you can say whatever you want, but if you look at his body of work, he’s one of the last living movie stars. At the end of the day, his personal life is none of our business. All I can judge him on is his work. You can’t deny there is so much good stuff."
In fact, there is so much good stuff that TGL not only parodies Top Gun but also pulls in additional material from Cruise's diverse oeuvre. This highway to the danger zone is punctuated by several possible pit stops in the territories of A Few Good Men, Rain Man, Cocktail, Born on the Fourth of July, Tropic Thunder, Risky Business and Jerry Maguire. Before the performance, the audience collectively chooses five of these films from which they want to see scenes; volunteers from the house become part of the interactive theater experiment.
"For this one, there are a ton of variables because they are picking the scenes," Blake says. "We never know the order of anything until that night. Then we have five different people from the crowd." With Point Break and Terminator, they worked with a single audience volunteer for the entire performance.
Besides these added elements, TGL's formula is comparable to its predecessors. An unrehearsed volunteer from the audience will fill in for Cruise during one of his iconic cinematic scenes, reading lines from cue cards provided by cast member Christi Waldon, who also shepherds the pseudo-Cruise through the show's blocking. During a rehearsal, I was invited to step in for Maverick, experiencing first-hand the participatory nature of the production. Under the firm but gentle guidance of Waldon, I windmill high-fived with Goose (Mitch Eakins), flirted with Charlie (Erika Zabelle), nosedived into the film's simmering homoeroticism with fellow pilots Iceman (Tobias Jelinek), Slider (Charlie Farrell), Viper (Gregory Hoyt) and Hollywood (John Moeslein), and had my balls busted by Meg Ryan (Joya Mia Italiano).
The rehearsal climaxed with a group sing-along to the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Loving Feeling," one of the many karaoke numbers incorporated into Tom Gun Live. This new musical component aims to encourage additional audience participation in a venue the size of the Regent, which at 400-plus seats is exponentially bigger than the troupe's previous venues, such as Viper Room and the late, great Dragonfly.
"What we do is interactive theater. Doing that with 150 people is a lot easier," Blake says. "We have nine cast members, so if each person deals with 15 people, then you're good. When you have 400 people, you have to find different ways to interact with them. That's why this show has the karaoke element. Because with that it doesn't matter where you are in the theater. Everyone can be involved."
This blurred delineation between performance and audience is the backbone of Blake's theatrical philosophy, which traces back to his East Coast adolescence.
"For me it's about making things accessible for non-theatergoers," Blake explains. "I was a surfer, stoner kid. But I would go downtown, in North Carolina where I grew up, I would do theater because I loved acting. But at the end of the night, I was like, 'I'm out of here. I’m gonna drink beers and whatever with my surfer buddies.' And my friends would go, ‘We wanna see your show.’ And I’d be like, ‘I don’t think Victor/Victoria would be your thing.’ So my concept was to start putting on shows for my friends. It turns out there are tons of people like my friends. They want to do things that are different from just going to the bar and drinking, and they are looking for those things. You just have to give it to them."
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Following this Dionysian throughline of pairing theater with drinking, the back-to-back performances of Tom Gun Live (at 8 and 10 p.m.) are immediately followed by an aptly themed '80s dance party for the show's patrons. Costumes are highly encouraged for both the party and the performance, so be sure to don your Tropic Thunder bald cap, slip into your Risky Business tighty-whities or just zip up your flight suit if you are feeling the need, the need for speed.
Tom Gun Live, Regent Theater, 448 S. Main St., downtown; Fri., March 17, Sat., April 29 & Fri., May 19, 8 & 10 p.m.; $25-$45. tomgunlive.com.