Become (the) One with Alley Theater’s ‘The Matrix Live! A Parody’

Countless old-timers out there can remember the sci-fi/special effects phenomenon ‘The Matrix’, and specifically, how the franchise elicited a general “Ahhh cool!” with its 1999 debut only to be followed by the whiplash of near-uninanimous heartbroken sighs at the release of two laughably overcooked sequels. It was a crazy time, but for the briefest of moments the Wachowski brothers and their black trench-coated, red pill taking, bullet-time doing, emo-action hero Neo (Keanu Reeves) held the reins of pop-culture supremacy, only to implode under the weight of their owns egos and general non-talent. Yes, a painful and humbling chapter in the American story, but also the perfect fodder upon which to unleash the quick-witted and crazy-eyed folks at Louisville’s The Alley Theater. Following in the spiritual footsteps of The Alley‘s smash hit ‘Point Break LIVE!’, ‘The Matrix Live! A Parody’ haphazardly romps through the events of the robot-fighting, spoon-bending saga with just as much delightfully manic vulgarity as we’ve come to expect from Derby City’s most consistently off-the-wall theatrical venue.

Written and directed by Todd Zeigler, ‘The Matrix Live! A Parody’ takes many structural cues from the aforementioned ‘Point Break’ adaptation, in that it introduces the Wachowski brothers, Andrew and Larry (real-life creative and directorial siblings behind ‘The Matrix’, here played by Corey Music and Ben Unwin) as over-the-top on-stage characters (as ‘Point Break’ did for director Kathryn Bigelow), while also pairing the Keanu Reeves character (here called Neanu, Keanu + Neo) with an on-stage assistant/acting coach. Larry and Andrew recognize that their images have faded over the last decade, with the disappointment of the latter ‘Matrix’ films alongside some other forgettable efforts, and are desperately hoping for a comeback in the form of a stage adaptation of ‘The Matrix’. The catch is that they have chosen Louisville as the locale for the show’s debut and that their production boasts absolutely none of the hollywood star-power or special effects budget (barely any budget) of the original. After an extended introduction the Wachowski brothers offer up a fairly coherent (at least in their minds) treatment of the original film over what serves as the first half of the ‘The Matrix Live!’, only to abruptly change their minds midway and opt to cram in the stories of the film’s two sequels as well.

L to R: Neleigh Olsen, Denny Grinar and Tony Smith

For those picturing the various episodes of skyscraper hopping, hyper-speed projectile dodging and deadly automaton bashing peppered throughout the ‘Matrix’ films and wondering, “what gives?”, the solutions employed by ‘Matrix Live!’ are simple and outrageously effective. Rather than standing in front of green screens to be filled in later with expensive CGI effects, the actors are assisted on stage (with continually building absurdity) by extras in green shirts. The comedic effectiveness of this device is made evident from one of the very first sequences, where femme fatale Trinity (Neleigh Olsen) freezes in place before a gravity-defying leap only to be literally carried across the stage by our ‘living green screens’, and its genius is solidified shortly thereafter, when the bumbling Neanu (an uncredited Denny Grinar) falls flat on his back after dodging some implied bullets, with one of the extras remarking, “I think we were supposed to catch him.” Aside from some excellent physical comedy, which also includes a couple of surprisingly intricate (albeit ridiculous) fight scenes, the remainder of the entertainment to be found in ‘Matrix Live!’ leans heavily on specific references to the films, critical analyses of blatant inconsistencies, humorous awareness of similarities with ‘Point Break Live!’, further relishing in the complete absence of a budget and yes, some gradual gender-based revelations for an increasingly liberated Larry Wachowski (who now goes by Lana in real life).

Strong on-stage performances are key to bringing the feverishly zany charm of ‘Matrix Live!’ to fruition and Zeigler’s cast does not disappoint. Throughout the roller-coaster ride of pop-culture triumph and travesty it’s the trio of Madeleine Dee as Neanu’s on-stage assistant, Kenn Parks as a bald-cap sporting Morpheus (best known as Bodhi from ‘Point Break Live!’) and Neleigh Olsen (Trinity) which provide some semblance of framework upon which everyone else can riff. Neleigh Olsen might just bear the most weight of all, as she is consistently the character who seems least aware of the fact she’s in a parody, while Kenn Parks best embodies the spirit of humor going on in ‘Matrix Live!’ with boisterous leadership and  an unapologetically obvious headpiece, and Madeleine Dee provides effortlessly bubbly comic relief and constant reality-check self-awareness as she instructs Neanu on how best to stumble through his lines and even takes his place during of of several fight scenes. Also notable are roles from Tony Smith, with a spot-on take of actor Hugo Weaving’s nefarious Agent Smith (also choreographed the production’s fight scenes) and Denny Grinar’ Neanu, whose absurdist journey from reluctant last-minute (fictitious) casting addition to semi-compitent performer mirrors Neanu’s own journey from part-time hacker to would-be savior quite perfectly.

Kenn Parks as Bodhi in 'Point Break LIVE!'

Despite some truly inspired moments there are a trifecta of issues preventing ‘Matrix Live!’ from being an easy recommend for everyone: It’s extremely referential to its subject matter (the latter half really tested my knowledge of the second two films), it’s actual quite profane (lot’s of f-bombs and the like) and at just under three hours it may strain your attention span. That being said, those capable of overlooking two or more of those points will most definitely find a lot to like, and with a long list of intangibles this is yet another success for the little theater company that could. I went in expecting a lot and regardless of some minor gripes my experience can be whittled down to the following two observations:

1)These people are having a $#^@-load of fun. 2) It’s infectious.

‘The Matrix Live! A Parody’ ends its run this coming weekend with shows December 15, 16 and 17, while The Alley Theater rolls on through the holidays with Shoestring Productions‘ ‘Stones in His Pockets’, a sneak preview of January’s ‘Star Wars: The Original Triology in 60 Minutes or Less’ and ‘Some Things You Need to Know Before the World Ends (A Final Evening with the Illuminati)’.

Even more information on Alley productions available via the theater’s website.

More articles by me here.

Chris Ritter <<<<<< <<<<<<