For Vrooommm!, Triad Stage enlisted female actors to play male NASCAR drivers, to great effect. (photo by Bert VanderVeen)

by Joanna Rutter

“You’re the man.”

“No. Trust me. You are the man.”

So goes Vrooommm!: A NASComedy, the new gender-bending offering from Triad Stage directed by David Karl Lee, which opened Jan. 30 to a sold-out crowd. It will close out the company’s Winston-Salem season with a bang (well, several bangs and other assorted loud noises) this week at the Hanesbrands Theatre.

This goofy high-speed story of a “suspiciously” successful female NASCAR driver and her resentful fellow drivers — played by other women — is a bizarre foray into gender binaries in Southern culture, as wacky as a Saturday morning cartoon injected with feminist steroids.

Triad Stage lives up to its reputation with this production, which is written by Janet Allard, a UNCG playwriting professor, and stacked with UNC School of the Arts and UNCG alumni. And it’s fitting that this play, commissioned in New York and developed in Palo Alto and Minneapolis, finds a home in bona-fide NASCAR country.

Vrooommm! is, according to Triad Stage’s Tiffany Albright, a “big artistic reunion” between Preston Lane and Richard Whittington, Triad Stage co-founders, and director David Karl Lee, who were all MFA buddies at Yale School of Drama. The play seems to have benefited from other partnerships as well: using only six cast members, it’s baffling how the storyline manages to contain 20 or so characters while never feeling cumbersome. This is clearly thanks to a nifty set-on-wheels by Bert Scott, clever sound design by Cory Raynor, and inventive costuming from Andja Budincich, which smoothly unifies what could have been a very kitschy production in a believable setting — no small feat considering the racecars are represented by neon rolling office chairs.

Not everything went smoothly during the opening performance, however: Emma Kikue, aka Randy “Stonewall” Jackson, had trouble with her adhesive moustache at the halfway point of the show. While heatedly debating with her fellow announcer, her facial hair flew off; after spluttering for a second, she said perfectly in character, “I’m so excited, my moustache is coming off!”

It was an unplanned moment of levity in a comedy where the laughs are orchestrated with a somewhat heavy hand. Amy Hamel as unsuccessful playboy Chip Chowalsky had the bad luck of carrying the more clichéd one-liners in the script (“Business up front, party in the back”).

The play is at its funniest in more boldly left-of-center moments, during encounters with a threatening fast-food mascot sporting a Jersey crime-lord accent — don’t ask, it never makes sense — or the karaoke numbers where drivers drunkenly sling insults at each other.

UNCSA senior Kikue’s performance, pesky moustache notwithstanding, was a highlight throughout the play. She displayed remarkable emotional versatility, exuding pure darkness as a tortured goth teen one minute and drawling easy confidence as a driver in the next. Kikue will be performing in UNCSA’s Pericles in April and one can only hope she’ll continue to act locally after graduating.

Equally notable was Courtney Moors in her Triad Stage debut. She brought such masculine energy to her Kenny “Hotshot” Kane that it’s not a surprise to see Shakespearean gender-flipping plays like Twelfth Night in her repertoire. Moors’ fiery swagger is so believable that when she abruptly switches roles to a gushing super-fan later in the show, it’s almost impossible to recognize her.

The clearly-studied assumed gender of all six actors is what makes this show worth seeing, especially with traditionally masculine NASCAR culture serving as its backdrop. (Mercifully, for the most part, the script avoids low-hanging redneck jokes.) And not only are women actors pretending to be men, but at different points, there’s a woman pretending to be a man who is actually a woman, and a woman who cross-dresses as a man.

Underneath its cartoon veneer, Vrooommm! via its leading lady — played to sassy perfection by Eliza Huberth — does attempt some halfhearted feminism that is ultimately left unresolved. Such answers, were they given, would be far too serious anyway. The plot centers somewhat around the male drivers’ suspicion that she’s cheating, but it doesn’t end up mattering as the story spirals deeper into its own ridiculousness.

The show zooms past the wackiness point-of-no-return in a locker room brawl between Chip and someone in a chicken suit, complete with well-timed flashes of light to punctuate Looney Tunes-esque punches, though the scene that earned the most audience laughs was a brilliantly blocked “crash” played out in strobe light slow-motion. The play culminates in a game of musical chairs organized by a racing god of yore. All of this is irrelevant and provides zero closure, but again, to seek that would be missing the point.

If the rules of playwriting and directing — and gender itself — were ever in discussion while working on Vrooommm!, it’s a sure thing that whoever was in that room quoted Hotshot’s locker-room toast: “The rulebook’s like the Bible. Open to interpretation!”

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