‘Cannabis!’ Review: Preaching to the Partaking Choir

‘Cannabis!’ Review: Preaching to the Partaking Choir

The reminder takes up only a single line of small print in the program, but it’s the kind of rule that doesn’t usually need spelling out: “No smoking permitted inside the venue.”

Cannabis! A Viper Vaudeville” knows its crowd. A music- and dance-filled celebration of marijuana, it belongs — no question — to downtown theater’s cherished tradition of weird art. Inside the doors of the Ellen Stewart Theater at La MaMa in Manhattan’s East Village, audience members are enveloped in a thick cloud that’s really just theatrical haze, not a pot-smoke fug. But it does the trick, visually if not aromatically, of establishing the atmosphere.

Created by Grace Galu, a magnetic, powerhouse vocalist whose character here is called Sativa Diva, and Baba Israel, who conceived the show and serves as its Magical Mystical M.C., “Cannabis!” is like a party where weed is the guest of honor, thrown by hosts whose ardent, uncritical devotion is about pleasure but also politics. Because as much as this experience allows you to get a little soft-focus while the entertainment swirls, there’s no missing its call to activism.

“Tonight is for anyone who carries a felony on their back for smoking, growing or distributing a flower,” Israel says at the top of the show. A few moments later, he adds: “Tonight is for my mother, who has dementia, whose morning tincture turns tantrums into a Bob Marley shuffle.”

Produced by Here and inspired by Martin A. Lee’s 2012 book “Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana,” the show is built around a call-to-action American history lesson that ties hostility toward the drug to racism in the culture. Yet “Cannabis!,” whose excellent performers include the hip-hop-jazz collective Soul Inscribed and members of the dance company Urban Bush Women, is indeed a vaudeville. Directed by Talvin Wilks and Israel, it occasionally gives in to the stoner tendency toward shagginess but is in many ways quite sharp.

Lighted by Tuce Yasak, with a multilevel checkerboard stage and a mammoth marijuana leaf suspended glittering above, the set (by Nic Benacerraf) makes uncommonly elegant use of the theater’s cavernous space, employing a diptych of projection screens as the backdrop. It’s there that we see the video (by David Bengali) that seamlessly complements the narrative we hear in song and spoken word, as Sativa Diva’s glamorous, vegetal-green costume (by Kate Fry) evolves piece by piece through the decades.

Louis Armstrong’s affinity for marijuana gets its own chunk of the performance, as do the 1960s. The show also revisits the emergence of medical marijuana as a compassionate response to the AIDS epidemic, and makes a heartbroken case for legalization in the song “No More Drug War,” about a mother and her military veteran son, whose marijuana use lands him in jail. (Galu, who composed the show’s original music, is also its music director.)

“Cannabis!” has a whole flock of dancer-choreographers: Chanon Judson, Courtney Cook, Mame Diarra (Samantha) Speis, Twice Light and Tatiana Barber. Yet that abundance seems right for a tribute to a plant that can change the way that people feel in their bodies, alleviating pain and allowing bliss.

In its interrogation of American hostility to marijuana, though, the show never acknowledges any danger associated with it, even as high THC levels can make cannabis products extremely potent. This is an ill-advised omission. Plenty of drugs come with asterisks, after all. But if “Cannabis!” is unlikely to make converts of skeptics, it’s not only for zealots.

This is at heart a gentle show, never more so than when we see projected the beguiling image of a beautiful, gracefully dancing old woman. This is Israel’s mother, Pamela Mayo Israel, once a member of the avant-garde downtown company the Living Theater, now ailing and taking those tinctures that her son gives her.

Also gentle: the palpable pleasure that ensues, at the end of the show’s first half, when audience members are invited to come down and join the cast in dancing. The night I saw it, there was zero awkwardness — just a mass of people moving joyfully in their bodies, under that giant leaf.

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Last Update: Fri, 22 Jul 22 14:51:05