I reviewed a show during Fringe 2018 called Life in a Box. Billed as a stoner musical, I figured it was an absurd, irritating sketch comedy premise that might elicit a few chuckles. It fit nicely into my schedule, and I took a chance on it.
Matthew and Landon’s endearing Life in a Box is the story of two dudes, who love their life and each other, who suddenly find that the apocalypse has put a damper on their friendship, so they travel back in time to set things right. This show wasn’t the haphazardly amusing, scattershot indulgence I expected. Masterfully executed, it was tight, buoyant and fiercely clever, grounded in guileless enthusiasm and genuine love. Creators Landon Doak (music and lyrics) and Matthew Finlan (book) have a dynamic that resonates authenticity and warms the heart.
“When I told my mom about this show—Mom, Landon and I are gonna write a musical about us smoking a lot of weed and traveling through time—she was like: I don’t know if I’m coming to that one,” says Finlan. I laugh at that. I understand her reluctance. “I’m excited for this selfishly, as a performer and co-creator. We get to keep this story alive for however long we can.”
Having worked together a lot over the years, Doak describes their process as a quick and dirty “collaborative hustle.”
“The show is hard. It’s one of the hardest shows I’ve ever had to do. It’s really fast-paced. And it’s really hard to not over-write everything. Everything starts as a grape and it needs to become a raisin.”
That streamlined narrative efficiency is one of the aspects of the Fringe production that most impressed me. There seemed to be no wasted stage time, not a single unnecessary gesture. And the team assures me that this latest production will have the same fast pace and minimalist aesthetic.
The pared-down look of the show was always intentional, but there were some effects that couldn’t be properly realized for Fringe. With only 15 minutes to set up and strike, and extremely limited storage space for a set, it was not logistically feasible to create a safe structure for the sort of acrobatic movement they envisioned for the series.
For this new Bad Hats collaboration, they’ve enlisted Remington North to create a sturdy set of metal bars that allows them the freedom to present a cartoonish reality. Now they can swoop in from all directions instead of being limited to the sides and bottom of their faux-tv-set frame. There’s no fancy tech; it’s still just vaudevillian muscle and cleverness, but with more expansive possibilities.
“The quickness, the freshness, the minimalism is all still there, but instead of using popsicle sticks, now we’re using welded iron,” says Finlan.
Sauder remarks on how perfectly it fits into Bad Hats repertoire, turning the limitations of indie-theatre into a brand with “minimalist theatrical gestures” that truly engages the audience’s imagination. The venue itself is an integral part of the experience. It’s an unapologetically industrial space—though transformed, reinvented as magical and inviting. “Though the art is being presented formally, it’s also about the experience of coming here,” says Sauder.
I was thrilled to learn that the story isn’t restricted to the content I saw at Fringe (which was presented as two episodes of a live-tv show). This new staging includes a third episode.
And there are many more to come. Finlan and Doak have story-boarded a multi-season arc so that, as episodes are released, there is a sense of progression and growth instead of just the quick and immediate payoff of a single, one-off show. To ground this ongoing story, they’ve created rules and solidified the yin/yang, frick-and-frack dynamic that characterizes their friendship. When one gets down or is overwhelmed by some dilemma, the other quickly swoops in to pick him up. “There’s constantly problems to manage,” Sauder says, which require quick-thinking and innovation. These rapid-fire scenarios leave no time to extraneous dialogue or action. And there is an unbridled optimism in the spectacle of these goofballs constantly saving each other from despair.
And this touches on an element of Life in a Box that really struck me—and it’s a rare find in comedy: it’s not the least bit mean-spirited. The humour does not require anyone to be the butt of a joke.
Bad Hats hopes to reach a demographic that isn’t necessarily accustomed to theatre. The non-conventional approach was part of the initial conception of the series, even before the story itself was mapped out. Finlan remembers thinking: “We have to make something that’s gonna get the Netflix watchers off the couch.”
The music featured in the show is a hybrid of rap, folk, and more conventional show tunes that irresistibly mesh. Doak performed all the music live at Fringe, but was also required to act, so he felt somewhat trapped behind the instrument. This year, he’s worked with sound designer Lyon Smith to set down some tracks. Much of the burden is now off of him during the show, freeing both performers up to create a more physically dynamic experience.
So what is Life in a Box, really?
“High octane and authentic to us,” says Finlan.
“It’s so silly,” says Doak.
“But it also makes me cry,” says Sauder. “It’s the most fun I’ve ever had coming to work.”
Put simply, Life in a Box is a musical about seeking optimism and finding joy in the shittiest situations.
As the summer comes to an end, as your faith in humanity hovers precariously over world events that seem increasingly dismal, and curling up in front of Netflix is your quick-fix distraction—log out and make your way to the Grand Canyon Theatre instead. You’ll see two guys working their asses off to bring you a hilarious, thrilling experience that will defy your expectations and warm your heart.