THE PLAYS THE THING
Season 4, Episode 17
August 28, 1999
Reviewed by SLK
RATING: 5.5 chakrams
SCRIBES & SCROLLS: Written by Ashley Gable & Thomas A. Swyden; Directed by Christopher Graves.
PASSING PARADE: Ted Raimi (Joxer); Jennifer Ward-Lealand (Zehra); Alison Wall (Minya); Mark Hadlow (Milo); Peter Muller (Dustinus Hoofmanus); William Davis (Kaelus); John McKee (Rivus); Stephen Hall (Therax); Mark Nua (Cleon) and Eduardo de Campos (Sophocles).
STORY SO FAR: Gabrielles puts on a play based on one of her scrolls, with the help of Joxer and a shady producer.
DISCLAIMER: Although no great literary works of art were harmed or plagiarised, a few
thespians stole some scenes during the production of this motion picture.
REWIND FOR: Pouty Warrior Princess in the opening scene after Gabrielle doesnt give her a backward glance on her way back to town after her scroll.
Actress Xena doing it "like Xena would" - great acrobatics, alas, same breathy delivery as she did before.
Xenas little pause mid-answer when Gabrielle questions whether Minya did indeed say "thespian".
QUOTABLE: "I must say, in that stall, I saw greatness." Zehra who read Gabrielles scroll in the bathroom. And if that line doesnt give a bard alarm bells about her work, I dont know what would....
"I seek your help. The warlord Humungous is behaving in a destructive way - no doubt as a result of his impoverished upbringing and other societal factors beyond his control." Dustinus Hoofmanus, acTOR and masterful conveyer of social messages delivered via mallet.
"The plays not bad, I just cant buy that Xena," a critic from Varietis on the real Xena, showing why he reviews plays instead of casting them.
"The two of you made me realise something deep down inside myself that I guess I always knew but I didnt dare admit. Im a thespian." Minya turning Lebanese.
Best hot tub deadpan:
"Wow, Im really wet." 'Xena'.
"(Giggle) Me too." Gabrielle.
ARGGGGGH. (Insert primal scream from reviewer here.) Ill come back to the source of my angst in a minute. First, the good. There were some funny moments in this Xena-lite episode, which takes a slightly satirical look at how an artists vision becomes compromised on the way to the theatre. I say slightly satirical because there isnt much in the way of subtlety about it and, in case you miss the point about losing the vision, Gabrielle repeats it often enough for even the slowest viewer to grasp.
The scene where Gabrielle sneaks a peek at a Sophocles production is particularly funny... moreso for the look of mortification on the bards face as she takes in the full might and importance of a pyramid of dancers supporting two duelling warlords. Now thats a hit!
Poor Gabrielle is not the first writer to get a whiff of power, glory, success whatever, and be tempted to sell out.
Its all a dig at modern-day Hollywood of course and, as such, there are some little moments that seem so bad that they have a ring of truth and you have to laugh - like the Centaur who decreed he must not be discriminated against by being offered quadruped roles!
Its pretty obvious the cast are having a lot of fun here, wallowing in the awfulness of Gabrielles "vision" script and delivering, in deadpan singsong voice, such pearlers as (cue earnest faces): "A mes-sage of peeeeace".
This does beg a very interesting question though: does all this mean Gabrielle really is a seriously bad writer? I mean, it sure sounds like it. And, after all, Zehra did instantly recognise her high-handed dross from the first moment she laid her beady eyes on that scroll - and this was written long before Gabrielle changed a word to make it fit for the masses.
But if this is so, why was the Academy of Performing Bards so enamoured of Gabrielles skills? Is she a better performer than writer then?
That still could mean her writing is terrible. If true, and Gabrielle really is an all round atrocious wielder of the quill, then it seems almost cruel of the shows writers to have made this her lifes calling. And then, to add salt to the wound, they reveal that she sucks at it in one breath and mock her gently for it for the rest of the episode.
From a fan perspective, its like suddenly discovering, five years on, that Xenas been a fraud all this time and that stunt doubles have been fighting all her fights. Oh, er, never mind.
Hmmm - still, it would explain why Xena never reads Gabrielles scrolls....
Anyway, cruel as this blow may seem to devoted Gabfans, perhaps we can all cling to the idea that Gabrielle may be just bad at writing about moments of profound epiphinies and the like; and normally her scrolls are the delight we have been led to believe they always have been. One hopes.
This episode did contain one further startling revelation. No, no, Im not talking about Minyas conversion to, er, the arts. Actually its Joxer. Here we discover hes really good at something. As a producer, his version of Gabrielles scroll would have been a guaranteed success. He even sold out the first show. His knowledge of what the ordinary plebs want, being exactly that himself, is spot on, as Zehra so mournfully notes. Go Joxer! Now if only he would give up his day job as warrior wannabe, hed have a real career ahead of himself. Best of all he could still maintain the family reputation of being ruthless, scheming underhanded... hey, just kidding. (Hollywood types can be so sensitive...)
It was also quite the treat seeing Jennifer Ward -Lealand, one of New Zealands premier dramatic actresses (and one of Lucy Lawlesss role models) hamming it up (and then some) for us as Zehra. Hard to think she was also the shows steely-eyed Boadicea in Deliverer.
One last nice observation before I unleash the hounds - it was ingenious seeing how the Xena folks worked out the special effects in ancient Greek plays, using wind to imply fire and gushing blood. Great stuff and pretty funny.
Okay, now the rant. American television is famous for its "Itll all be all right next episode" mentality, but this one is bordering on ridiculous, when you consider what has just transpired. Maybe they figured after so many dark, angsty episodes, it was time for the light relief. Well fine, but do they have to do personality transplants at the same time? They dont dare do it with their hero Xena, but Gabrielles character seems fair game. Its like at least half a dozen personalities live inside her and we get pot luck as to which one comes out.
Evolution is not uncommon for people; even this number of changes is theoretically possible (although unlikely) - but people dont EVER jump in and out of different stages of their development, back and forth, randomly as Gabrielle does.
The last five or six times we joined Gabrielle, particularly since meeting Najara in Crusader, shes always been asking herself the bigger, deeper questions like "why am I here?", "what is my path?" in a drawn-out spiritual quest which has seen her lurching trustingly from one svengali to another.
Then in the last episode, The Way, which most will have missed as it was initially pulled by RenPic, Gabrielle finally got some answers she liked and decided to follow Elis path, believing that the meaning of life is about non violence and peace. She threw away her staff forever more and made this rather enormous personal decision never to engage in violence ever again - a somewhat optimistic philosophy given she travels with a warrior princess. Almost saint-like, she wanders off with Xena at the end...
Now this week, we are to believe all she cares about is putting on a preachy play of her scrolls and carrying on like a temperamental, egotistic Hollywood artiste, who cant even delegate her character to an actress because only SHE can do justice to it.
Will the real Gabrielle please stand up?
Not that the deep, inner questing stuff is necessarily the way to go (its certainly not my idea of fun), but even a hint of consistency wouldnt go astray on this show. Airing this episode hot on the heels of Gabrielles sudden revelation about the meaning of life, death and the universe makes her seem shallower than my great aunts butter dish and with a personality disorder in urgent need of diagnosis. (I wonder if Xena notices she wakes up to a different bard each day?)
And by now, one would also rather hope Gabrielles heavy-handed lecturing was a thing of the past. She still needed this play to figure out people dont like to be preached to? Er, right. Shes pretty slow some days...
My annoyance at The More She Changes, The More She Reverts To Season One Gabrielle really marred my enjoyment of this episode. But even if it had been in season ones line up, it still wouldnt have been a big winner for me.
It seemed the humour was a little too obvious. The gags were set up a mile off and delivered with the force of a cement truck without brakes. Maybe they figure family fare doesnt have to be clever or witty?
But not so ... they have been funny and pitched at the masses before.
Leaving Joxer hanging there upside down, tremulously calling "Hello? You guys?". Gee, thats never been done before. (At least it was a funny dig about producers being hung out to dry.)
And Minyas thespian thing was so yawningly blatant they may as well have just affixed a neon pointy sign on her head with the words flashing: "When Minya said THESPIAN here, she meant LESBIAN and in case you missed it, well get Xena and Gabrielle to say THESPIAN a few more times for you, and to wonder aloud if thats what she really meant. *WINK WINK*".
Yeah it was funny but it was real obvious, guys - surprisingly so for the people who have turned subtext into an artform.
In summary, the episode was okay for a laugh and not much more. The wit we have loved in some episodes, is sorely missing. But at least there were laughs - another thing which has been sorely missing for awhile. The character development they had been working on not only comes to a screeching halt here but does a massive U-turn and heads back the other way.
Some days I just dont know what to make of Xena any more. And I wonder if the writers are finding themselves in the same fix. If so I hope they sort out their collective midlife crisis soon, pick a path and stick to it.
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