Review: In "A Venomous Color: Burbank (Act 1)," Mickey's Shorts May Be Red, But He's No Commie

A Venomous Color: Burbank (Act 1)

Written and directed by Cameron Darwin Bossert

Presented by Thirdwing via its streaming service

In an in-person run at the wild project earlier this fall, Thirdwing's terrific A Venomous Color: The Fairest explored Disney's "Nunnery," its sex-segregated department of women painters and inkers, as they worked to complete Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (you can read our review here). Thirdwing is dedicated to a hybrid model that embraces both live and streaming theater productions; and the entire first act of A Venomous Color: Burbank, which functions as sequel and companion piece to The Fairest but does not require having seen the earlier play to be enjoyed, is now available on Thirdwing's streaming service (starting at $4.99 per month or $49 per year, subscriptions include access to the streaming platform and tickets to live shows; see Thirdwing's site for details of available membership packages). Written and directed, like The Fairest, by Thirdwing founder and Artistic Director Cameron Darwin Bossert and filmed primarily at the wild project while theaters were closed for the pandemic, the four episodes of Burbank (Act 1) trade The Nunnery for the (male) top of the Disney pyramid but retain both the earlier play's interest in the nexus of art, labor, and personal psychology and its thoroughly engrossing dramatization of that nexus.

The opening of episode 1 takes us back to 1935, as the Disney studio is on the verge of beginning Snow White, to introduce us to Walt Disney (Cameron Darwin Bossert) and some of his hang-ups, artistic and otherwise, as he, smoking and coughing, confronts star artist Art Babbitt (Richard Saudek) over the latter's habit of drawing nude models at his home. Having compellingly established the push and pull of antagonism, respect, and power between these two men, the play jumps ahead—with a brief appearance by Nunnery employee Frances (Sivan Gordon-Buxbaum) from The Fairest—to the post-Snow White years, when the studio, flush with success, moved to a new larger location and hired more staff before running into, as we find out in episode 2, multiple box office failures during the war years. These financial struggles lead to a new push for unionization among the company's animators, but Walt's lawyer, Gunther Lessing (Allen Lewis Rickman), has a plan, and it involves Art Babbitt.

Burbank (Act 1) elegantly and entertainingly marries the historical and the characterological. It also makes good use of the recorded format's capacity for quick scene transitions and juxtapositions while maintaining the feel of live theater. Bossert's Disney is compulsively watchable, increasingly haggard and off-balance while no less strong-willed, and Saudek's Babbitt is a more restrained yet equally assertive foil, more likely to employ irony than volume. Rickman's performance as the vehemently anti-communist (and, in passing, clearly sexist) Lessing possesses a comic edge, and Ginger Kearns as Disney's wife Lillian suggests a woman who is perfectly capable of handling both herself and her volatile husband. The question that she poses to Walt about how the sort of uber-capitalist company town that he envisions is different from communism is a sharp insight that also brings to mind both the nation's industrializing past and the "campuses" of today's Big Tech companies, as the animators' move towards unionization evokes the nascent unionization movement currently unfolding across the video game industry. Luckily, since Thirdwing does not have to hand-paint each frame of Burbank, after bingeing act 1, you will only need to wait until mid-January for the virtual curtain to rise on act 2.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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