The lighter side of the heart of darkness

Philly Fringe 2016 review: Chris Davis’s One-Man Apoc­a­lypse Now’

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Chris Davis, in the shit. (Photo by Maria Shaplin)
Chris Davis, in the shit. (Photo by Maria Shaplin)

For my first experience of prolific solo theater artist Chris Davis (Drunk Lion, Chinchilla Coats), I saw his new One-Man Apocalypse Now (OMAN). It is a tour de force that convinced me I must now see all his other work.

Anyone seeing OMAN without knowing Francis Ford Coppola's iconic Vietnam film Apocalypse Now (1979) will feel lost, or at least miss many of Davis's brilliant homages to and in-jokes about the performances of Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Dennis Hopper, Harrison Ford, Laurence Fishburne, and Robert Duvall. It's a classic of its genre and a unique masterpiece. Everyone should see it, so rush to Netflix — and then experience Chris Davis.

The journey is part of the experience

Davis and a few other Fringe producers are using 5213 Grays Avenue in Philadelphia's Grays Ferry neighborhood. We gather at one end of the sprawling, decrepit, scarifying building, and embark on an eerie trek down cement hallways, surrounded by construction that will eventually be office spaces, glimpsing people in the shadows, guided by hand-scrawled scraps of paper taped to drywall announcing Apocalypse Now.

We arrive in a small room with about 20 chairs and a stage area with DIY footlights, a mattress, and speakers. The Doors's "The End" — if you know the movie, you know the song — blares. For the first minute, Davis mouths Sheen's dialogue as drunk soldier Willard as it plays, and I worried he would lip-sync all of Willard's words (which could be fascinatingly awful): "Saigon. Shit. I'm still only in Saigon...."

Instead, Davis, boldly directed by actress and playwright Mary Tuomanen, jumps from one character to another as Willard journeys up the river into Cambodia to find renegade officer Kurtz, reciting key lines with occasional commentary. "And now a young Harrison Ford," he announces before lampooning Hans Solo/Indiana Jones's bland one-scene performance, and re-enacting situations with unrestrained verve. Highlights include Robert Duvall's surf-obsessed Captain Kilgore ("I love the smell of napalm in the morning"), the Playboy bunny's dance and helicopter escape, Chef's encounter with the tiger and all the boat's crew ("here's 15-year-old Laurence Fishburne..."), and Dennis Hopper's freaked-out journalist.

Up the river

Davis cleverly blends in mentions of the Fringe Festival and his own career challenges, such as performing OMAN every day of the Fringe. He adds experiences from his childhood, and suggests that just as Martin was famously consumed by the role of Willard, so is Davis. While ferociously committed to all the movie's roles, he's adept at stepping outside them to comment: "I'm Martin Sheen," he yells when seized by Kurtz's followers, "My son is Charlie Sheen, he's famous!" While successfully revealing the heart of darkness, OMAN is also incredibly funny.

One-Man Apocalypse Now's climactic confrontation becomes even more about Philadelphia theater and Davis's place in it, equating Willard's grim mission with an actor's struggles, and builds that combination of humor and horror to a perfect point. I can't wait to see more by Chris Davis.

What, When, Where

One-Man Apocalypse Now. By Chris Davis, Mary Tuomanen directed. Through Sept. 24, 2016 at 5213 Grays Ave., Philadelphia. (215) 413-1318 or fringearts.com.

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