The artists and administrators with most theater companies would likely bristle at any suggestion that one of their productions could still use a little more work. Tim Habeger, on the other hand, a director and co-founder of the plucky PushPush Arts, an organization that has been operating around town in some form or fashion for roughly 25 years now, might actually take it as a compliment.
The bulk of my previous experience seeing and/or reviewing PushPush shows dates way back to the 2005-2009 era, when the group was based in Decatur, staging generally traditional (if decidedly low-budget) plays by everyone from Albee, Pinter and Coward, to Brecht, Chekhov and Shakespeare. But, since then, PushPush has evolved into what its website refers to as an “arts incubator,” experimenting with immersive or multidisciplinary workshops that focus on original, locally generated material: “We are not a commercial theater hoping to sell tickets for popular plays.”
In 2019, as a partner in the Conversion Project, an arts-driven cooperative, the company relocated to College Park. While awaiting the imminent completion of a renovated facility in the city’s downtown district that will ultimately include a performance cafe, multiple galleries and studio spaces, and even affordable housing units, PushPush is utilizing a “theater annex” situated upstairs at a nearby church.
Director Habeger’s latest example of arts incubation is “The Artificial Island,” an offbeat one-act by writer and musician Jeffrey Butzer. The comedy follows a quirky young woman, Penny (Zoey Laird), from an otherworldly encounter with a fortune teller (Laurie Sanii) to sudden confinement at a women’s correctional complex, where she is counseled by a therapist (Amanda Marks) and finds a possible love interest in her new cellmate, who happens to be a man (Freddy Boyd).
Is it all a dream in Penny’s mind? The psychic makes cryptic allusions to sea creatures and “Ming-dynasty insects,” and wonders whether she and Penny have met before in a past life, or whether they’re destined to “create something together” in the future — which may or may not foreshadow a little ditty they sing later, when the mysterious medium pays her a visit at the rehab center.
Besides her bizarre infatuation with the infamous Kevin Costner flop “Waterworld,” that flaky guidance counselor also forms an exceedingly weird obsession with Penny, too. At one point, the doctor sneaks into her patient’s cell at night, bearing a gift of sexy lingerie … Or does she?
And Penny’s eligible bachelor of a bunkmate must have his own thing for the Ralph Macchio movie “Crossroads,” given how he recounts to her a supposedly personal but all-too-familiar story about selling his soul to the devil for $175, and the promise of becoming the best guitarist in the world. His present to Penny is a push-button box equipped with a laugh track, which factors in a few later scenes.
As she struggles writing her first screenplay — resetting “Citizen Kane” in a women’s prison — Penny eventually negotiates her own bargain with the devil (as embodied in a comical cameo by Habeger), before setting out on the uncertain road that lies ahead of her, in a symbolic manner of speaking.
Butzer’s “The Artificial Island” is all that, covering a whole lot of metaphorical ground in a mere 70-odd minutes. The acting tends to be variable, and, par for the PushPush course, the production values are fairly negligible. It needs more fine-tuning, but that’s why it’s called a “workshop,” after all.
As for what the future holds for PushPush Arts, upcoming theater plans include “Deaf Republic,” an original response to the situation in Ukraine, and an updated version of the ancient Sophocles epic “Antigone,” addressing some ever-relevant issues about the perils of authoritarianism. Bring it on!
“The Artificial Island”
Through June 4. 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 8 p.m. Monday. $10-$25 (pay what you can). PushPush Arts Theater Annex (at First United Methodist Church), 3716 E. Main St., College Park. pushpusharts.com.
Bottom line: Erratic, but an ongoing work in progress.