The Ominous Noodlings of the Jeeves Collective

Mary Chino Cherry

Issue 43 * Spring 2021

Max Vermillion is busy slamming the lids down on old-school metal trashcans, rhythmically, angrily, while Sharonjean McLeob dances behind him. McLeob's dress is diaphanous, almost traditionally balletic, except for the massive, anatomically detailed penis painted on the back. Meanwhile, Jill Wegner, who is perched atop an industrial scissor-lift, yells directions from her megaphone.

"Angrier, Max! I want to see the balls of your feet, Sharon!"

Wegner, still pert in her 60s, has been the driving force behind this decenteredness for 40 years. From its somewhat accidental founding in 1980, The Jeeves Collective has been Los Angeles's most innovative theater group, relentlessly avant-garde, uncompromisingly bold. According to critic George Mobely,

TJC, by beginning their interpretation of The Cherry Orchard by pelting the audience with raw eggs, did not merely puncture the fourth wall, they shamed the fourth wall's pretenses to deserving to exist while also giving the audience a deep connection to Madame Lyubov Andreievna Ranevskaya's deep ennui as the sticky mess dried on their skin and began to fester over the course of the next three hours.

The Jeeves Collective has always drawn crowds, many in them seeking the thrill of anticipating what exactly the troupe would do next. It has also attracted some of the most cogent criticism, not to mention some of the finest performers, the world has to offer. Little known by his legions of loyal mainstream fans, Hollywood "nice guy" Thom Phanx got his start at TJC in a performance that quickly became known to the cognoscenti as "The Shark Suit Incident" in 1983. In an interpretation of Breakfast at Tiffany's, Phanx, dressed in a suit made of an actual (deceased) shark, played the back half of a 12-foot tall Holly Golightly, and began to bleed from his scalp midway through the play, when the shark's jaws began to dry, its ligaments slowly clamping down on Phanx's head. The situation was not helped when, in a pivotal scene, Phanx's back-half-of-a-Holly had to don a three-foot-tall cast-iron top hat. Phanx, caught up in his performance, did not even notice the blood now streaming down his face. The audience, of course, just thought it was all part of the show.

During my visit, TJC was, thankfully, free of bloody horror, but after the lunch break (Wegner's famously delicious peanut butter and pickle sandwiches are served), the show's gaffer, Nuñes Grevitch, began filling party balloons with pure hydrogen.

The scene they are rehearsing is a new work, commissioned by an anonymous benefactor and penned by the irascible Grant Dykbyne, called Cup-O-Noodle Gravitas. "It's an exploration of the collapse of high and low culture, but, you know, narrated by Sunday morning news show analysts. But with explosions and clams," Grevitch informs me.

A recent graduate of UCLA with dual degrees in set design and international trade, Grevitch is typical of TJC's workforce—even the receptionist has an MFA—but, as Grevitch himself admits, some of his attraction to the iconic troupe was practical: "I mean, what else can you do with a theater degree in Hollywood?" he jokes.

After the balloons are filled, John Dough, another of TJC's current ensemble, and a former active-duty Marine and expert marksman, loads up a compound crossbow with a bolt, the tip of which has been replaced with a flaming rag. He aims at a Mylar Garfield balloon hovering harmlessly a few inches below the metal ceiling of the troupe's warehouse workspace, then lets fly. The balloon erupts into flame; the blunted bolt ricochets off the ceiling, falling with a clatter onto a stack of Lobster Energy Drink cans.

"Nice shot!" says Wegner, in an uncharacteristically uncritical tone.

"They key to survival in The Jeeves Collective," notes Dough, "is to not piss off Jill."

The laughter of those present in reaction to this remark is surprisingly unrestrained. But TJC is not a typical workplace, nor is it a typical theater troupe. Wegner certainly lets her ideas be known, and her opinions, generally, hold sway. TJC, however, is generally free from the backstabbing and petty enmities all too common in the profession. "Others put their anger into their performances," says Kaitlyn Nowan, the pink-haired femme-fatale of the troupe's reinterpretation of the Dudley Do-Right franchise, "but we channel our anger as performance. This allows us to be hella normal when we're not onstage."

If there seems to be something cathartic in it for the performers, there is something remarkable about TJC's longevity. It is not just remarkable that they have been around for 40 years; TJC has been in almost constant performance, mounting new shows throughout the season, writing, rehearsing, creating year round.

"Something about the California sun," muses Wegner, "or maybe we're all just insane."

In Farrow Furlough, from 1990, the troupe celebrated the idea of unemployment long before COVID-19 made it a necessity. Silver Kohl, seated in a tattered recliner in his boxer shorts, spent all of the play's 10 hour run time watching television and eating potato chips while, all around him, Nadja Sonnenborg, Tim O'Baey, and Newton Sedgwick re-enacted the Cuban revolution with fire extinguishers and toy trains. The piece finishes with Kohl rising, donning a navy-blue double-breasted suit, and singing a version of Ronald Reagan's (in)famous "Morning in America" ad in full Wagnerian style.

"The atypicality is, sort of, typical for us," admits Sonnenborg now, as she recounts the play. "We went through 30 versions of the ad to finally get the one we didn't use." Sonnenborg, Wegner's off-again/on-again lover, muse, collaborator, and Pilates instructor, is still very much active in the collective and, at the time of my visit, is helping McLeob rehem her dick dress. "The performance is almost an afterthought, just another iteration of what may or may not be happening right now."

At that, Dough lets fly at another balloon, lighting up the entire space with a massive "Whoosh!"

Critics have called this attitude towards performance dismissive of both audience and art. Writing in The Village Horse, Truly Piecemiel described TJC's Greater Frisco/Ton of Haight as "mindless noodling, signifying frothing . . . yet decisively ominous. Is our future really a hot pink waitress serving radioactive cocktails to Teamsters in Wile E.Coyote costumes? As provocative as this may be, it flies in the face of theatrical traditions. I hope their next 'iteration' includes more Spam."

Indeed, it did, as TJC went on to recreate the scene half a dozen times, in interpretations of Titus Andronicus and Lysistrata, among others, with the canned meat-stuff making appearances in at least half.

"We read the critics," admits Wegner.

"They're really a necessary part of the performance," adds Sonnenborg, "almost like we have Statler and Waldorf in the Writing Room with us."

About that title: the Writing Room happens to be TJC's name for the very warehouse space in which we stood, with its trashcan slamming, otter juggling, and random explosions of origins both known and not. "In every performance," says Wegner, "and in every rehearsal," rejoins Sonnenborg, "there is an element of danger."

Kohl, whose absence in the Writing Room is constantly noted by the oversized needlepoint portrait of him hanging from the south wall, is not the most famous TJC graduate, but he did rise to some notoriety before his all-too-early demise. Chuffing to Thailand, Kohl's one-person show and later film about his experiences filming The Kerning Files, established him beyond the confines of west-coast theater's cutting edge. But his loss is keenly felt: "I kind of wonder," says Wegner, in a candid moment, "if maybe the last 15 years have been our attempt to deal with his passing." Kohl, as a founding member of TJC, continued to return to the troupe over the years, most notably for his last performance, as a gimp-masked Clarence Darrow literally tap-dancing through a minefield of real mousetraps in a radical revision of Inherit the Wind.

Rumors still surround Kohl's death. "A man his age just doesn't choke on a Hostess Ding-Dong," laments Dough, the mystery compounded by Kohl's last speech in Inherit the Wind. Penned by Kohl himself, it ends with this more or less infamous line: "Writhing now, in my demise, I see the elemental, the tiny step that is my presence in the long chain of becoming out of being."

Wegner, O'Baey, Sonnenborg, know it by heart, and the collective's newer members, Dough, Grevitch, McLeob, and Nowan among them, have come to understand the profound meaning of Kohl's absence. "We're working in the wake of greatness," says Nowan, "But thankfully," adds Sonnenborg, "it's a vacuum we do not abhor."

"Naturally," says Wegner, dropping a mic as she mounts the scissor lift and continues the practice.