I Voted for Gummi Bears

ME: So, what are you going to see next?

POTENTIAL AUDIENCE MEMBER: Oh, I don’t know. Maybe the Martin Luther King thing. What about you?

ME: Oh, I’m going to see “I Voted for Gummi Bears.” I’ve actually seen it before — it’s really good.

PAM: Really? What’s it about?

ME: (enthusiastically) It’s a lecture about electoral disenfranchisement!

(pause)

PAM: …oh.

So, this is kind of a tough sell. Because it is a lecture. But it’s a visual, engaging, articulate lecture about a compelling topic. I don’t really know how to sell that to anyone — but I do know that it’s something that has consistently kept me on the edge of my seat.

I saw this several years ago, and enjoyed it, but I don’t know that it left a really strong impression. This time around — I don’t know if the difference is in how he’s telling it, or how I’m listening (I suspect the latter), but I found it to be much more layered and interesting.

First of all — for anyone who’s confused — this is a docudrama, consisting of interspersed videos of interviews, documents, and live performance. It starts out with the startling realization of the number of states that permanently remove the right to vote from anyone who’s been convicted of a felony — and trace the history of those laws back through the Civil War. Without going into too much detail, it becomes a kind of summarized history of institutionalized racism in the United States, from the Emancipation Proclamation to the War on Drugs. This is compelling stuff to me — I don’t know how to sell it to anyone else.

It’s fascinating stuff, detailed, complicated, as accessible as can be expected, and well-researched. I’m totally enthusiastic about the content of the show. The one hesitation that I will raise — and this is, by the way, something far outside of the content of the show itself — is that I’m a bit baffled at its inclusion in a spiritually-themed theatre festival. Sure, its message of openness and acceptance is one that is, perhaps, ultimately spiritual in nature — but spirituality that broadly defined applies to nearly every work of art, surely? Which raises the question of how to define the parameters of the Festival as a whole. Again, not anything that has to do with the show itself — but does leave me scratching my head as to how to define exactly what this Festival is trying to be.

Stands Alone

I have to confess, this was a truly odd collection of material. The first half consists of a collection of storytelling, mostly focusing on the teller’s struggles with gay identity. This took me a while to warm up to — his persona is intensely theatrical, in a way that I found initally off-putting — but he has a truly relaxed, genuine relationship with the audience that rapidly won me over. Strangely enough, the story of his I found the most engaging wasn’t really a story at all, but recounting a series of distracted musings that took place while smoking weed — there was something really, well, real, about his ability to evoke that.

The second half was readings from a script by the author, and, well — at the risk of getting caught in the middle of an artistic argument, I’m going to go into a bit more detail. It’s an excerpt from a script that the playwright wrote for Off-Leash Area, specifically for their production of Border Crossings. She seemed to feel that her script had been done something of an injustice, in light of the numerous changes that had been made.

Now, I was actually — however briefly — a part of the rehearsal process for this show, having observed at least one, as well as having seen initial drafts of the script. And my impression at the time was that the cast was struggling a great deal against the text, which I wasn’t terribly enamored of. The playwright’s interpretation really didn’t do much to battle this original impression.

See — she opened by reading an excerpt, which was reasonably engaging. But there’s a great difference between writing text to be *read* to an audience, and writing text to be performed by a body of actors. The characters she wrote have a tendency of continually narrating their actions and thoughts as they take place. The text doesn’t allow the actors room to perform, to indicate emotional shifts through thought, gesture, expression — everything is laid out by the text itself in a way that often feels jarring and artificial. Ultimately, the effect that’s achieved is the sense that the characters are narrating a set of ideas, rather than being able to simply express themselves as characters. There isn’t a sense of faith in either the performers or the medium, and that’s frustrating for me as someone sitting in the audience.

Normally, I’m very defensive of the role of the writer — but this is a case in which the performers who altered the text were, I think, in the right to do so. The ideas contained in it were interesting enough — but the text, as written, simply isn’t performable as theatre.

The Gospel According To Dean

People who have been following my writing for a while know this already, so I’ll get it out of the way right now — I honestly believe that Dean Hatton is one of the most remarkable artists in the Twin Cities, and I’ve plugged the hell out of his work at every available opportunity. I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with him on numerous occasions, and that’s been a direct result of my admiration for his work — not the other way around.

Having put that out of the way, I’d like to add that I think that this is one of his best shows. So much of the struggle of Dean’s work is that he’s such a perfectionist — it takes him a while to generate material, and he can’t simply churn out sketches and stories the way that a lot of us can. But he’s hit a point in his career where he’s developed so *much* that he can start building shows out of the dozens of sketches he has lying around.

The individual sketches are, as always, solid. But what he’s been able to do with this one is combine them into something with a certain thematic resonance. Make no mistake, this is sketch comedy, with little or no actual *plot* tying the pieces together — but he’s now able to set pieces alongside each other in such a way that they create an emotional arc, beginning in one place and ending in another. He’s able to truly craft a world, one with its own laws of physics and governed by its own internal logic, that — within the context of a spiritual festival — generates not only an entertaining collection, but a somewhat coherent worldview, as well.

Which makes this all sound dreadfully serious, but it’s not. I was laughing consistently from beginning to end, and I’m confident that most audiences will. But I do want to draw some attention to the fact that, for those so inclined, there’s a lot of careful thought taking place underneath the surface of that, as well. I really can’t recommend this highly enough.

The World’s Most Frequently Bombed Hotel

I have to confess, I really don’t have all that much to say about this beyond what’s indicated by the show description. This is a one-man storytelling piece about a dude who went to northern Ireland, and the crazy shit he saw there.

I’m a huge sucker for travelogues, and so much of the appeal of first-person storytelling is the ability to take us to places that we’ve never been, both physically and emotionally. This show does both. There’s places in which the performer is talking so rapidly that he’s hard to follow (and, man, if this is the rapid-fire delivery that people have been complaining about in my shows, I can finally identify), but that’s a truly small quibble — it’s almost impossible that he could have spent time in a place like this without having something worth hearing.

I don’t necessarily agree with all of the conclusions that he comes to, nor the observations made by many of those he comes in contact with — but that’s hardly the point. He skilfully illustrates the vast variety of frustrations by everyone caught in the horrible situation he describes, and it’s a situation that, perhaps, isn’t as far from us as we’d like to think. This is compelling stuff, and highly recommended.

Essentials

I spoke to the writer/performer briefly before the show. “Are you a performer?” she asked me.

“Yeah,” I said. “I’m opening right after you. Are you ready for your opening?”

“Oh, absolutely not,” she laughed, and went about setting up her show.

Man, I can identify. Her anxiety was visible at the beginning, and her performance got off to a rocky start — she stumbled over her intro in a couple of places, and her opening “interpretative dance” left me a bit cold, I’m afraid — but as she got into her stories and the adrenaline hit, she visibly relaxed and grew more enthusiastic and engaged.

A couple of quick observations. First of all, I suspect that I’m not in her audience — she opened with a piece that largely revolved around the humor of her being shocked at pole-dancing lessons, and, meh. I think that this probably reveals a lot more about me than it does about her — but I’ve become truly jaded when it comes to my entertainment; so much of the appeal of first-person storytelling is, for better or worse, voyeuristic, and a lot of what appeals to me about the genre is the opportunity to hear about weird shit. This piece falls flat if you don’t have a similar reaction to pole-dancing; and I don’t, and it did.

More engaging is when she gets more personal — and it’s hard not to feel like the core of her story is a bit of a missed opportunity. She talks, briefly and tangentially, about her abusive upbringing — and stands before me preaching openness and unity. The transition from point A to point B seems like it must be a fascinating one — and although she gives it to us in broad outlines, I miss the details, the countless revelations that must have occurred along the way. I can’t escape the sense that she’s somehow tip-toeing around the real story that she has — and there’s no doubt that she has one.

So ultimately, the sense that I walk away with is that this isn’t by any means a bad show — but it is a frustrating one; I walk away wanting to hear more of her story than I got. This may be attributable to another generational disconnect — I want her to provide something that most her audience won’t miss — but then, the only experience I’m qualified to report upon is my own, so.

Java Jack’s Showcase

Sanctuary: Present Tense

Reviewed this piece already.

Jesus at Guantanamo

Ah, the *other* Jesus show in the Festival! It’s a killer premise — the combination of disparate elements that’s sure to produce *some* sort of resonance. Annnd…I’m not quite sure what to make of it yet.

It’s interesting to me to note that everyone I’ve spoken to that’s seen previews of this show are working under the assumption that the character he is playing is, in fact, Jesus — whereas my take was that he’s a crazy guy who *thinks* he’s Jesus. The show description leaves the question ambiguous (although, personally, I find the latter interpretation to be much more compelling).

Particularly since he’s developed such a mannered performance, which I again have mixed feelings about — he’s held my attention for the previews, but I can’t help thinking that his collection of twitches and facial tics would become grating over the course of a show. I also find some of his meandering, abrupt subject changes — shifting from Peter’s fear of water to an indictment of waterboarding — to be…manipulative?

Hard to say, though — I’m largely speculating. His premise is solid, and his performance has kept me engaged at the showcases I’ve seen thus far. I’m venturing a cautious interest in this one.

Sanctuary: Present Tense

So the storyteller comes out, pops on a costume piece, and proceeds to talk to us as her character. This is — hard to pull off, and usually a tough sell for me.

Her premise is interesting enough — a story told from the point of view of a kind of celestial cleaning lady — but I struggled with how artificial much of her performance seemed to me. The character she created didn’t seem to be very distinct, for one thing. Much of her piece was interactive, asking leading questions of the audience, and…I *hate* that. Either tell me a story, or actually banter easily with your crowd — don’t quiz me on something that you already know the answer to as part of some contrived effort to make me complicit in your performance.

We also had a heckler in the crowd, whose presence I actually kind of enjoyed — it was fascinating to watch how the different performers, in the different styles, responded to her. In this case, the performer allowed her to dominate, which I suspect betrays a lack of confidence — a lack of strength in her stage presence; she tried to play along with her, but was never really able to pull the performance back. Not that dealing with hecklers is ever fun — but I found it to be a telling exchange.

Witnessing To A Murder

Previews are funny things, and they’re so rarely able to accurately represent the experience of the show. Seeing multiple previews of a single show is always illuminating, too — sometimes someone just had an off-night, or chose the wrong material, and can turn my whole perception around at the next showcase. Or they’ll blow me away at one, only to reveal that they only *have* five minutes of material.

Which is why, after three previews of this piece, I’m prepared to now say, without reservation, that this is my single most anticipated show of the Festival. She’s knocked it out of the park every time. That’s not a fluke — that’s solid performance discipline, folks.

Quest

In it, won’t review it.

Isles Deli Showcase

(Brief note — due to a low audience turnout, we kicked around cancelling this one before some of us opted to stick around and at least work our material in front of each other — which is why there’s such a small number of performers.)

Poetry of the Divine

My conversation with the musician before the performance actually did a lot more to pique my interest regarding the show than the showcase itself — not because there was anything bad about what she did, but because I suspect that this is a show that’s really fucking hard to preview. She promises another multidisciplinary piece, interweaving “original music, sacred texts, poetry, and dance”, spanning “from Medieval England to Biblical Judea, ancient China to the Golden Age of Persia”.

All of these things sound really interesting to me. While I enjoyed the song that she played — quite a bit, actually — it didn’t do a very good job of giving me a sense of what the actual *show* would be. I’m not sure what would — but it’s hard for me to recommend a show on the basis of what I *didn’t* see.

Date Rape for Beginners: A Seriously Funny Tale of Trauma and Recovery

I’ve already reviewed this piece, so I’ll move right along.

Jesus: The Lost Years

I’m performing in this piece, so I’ll move right along.

Sanctuary: Present Tense

While this is a teller that I found very warm, and very charming, I found her *story* to be somewhat shapeless — meandering without really giving me a sense of ending up anywhere; she would frequently stammer, lose her place, and find it again, leaving me lost somewhere in the middle. I’m presuming this is symptomatic of a work-in-progress; once she nails down her key points, I imagine I’d enjoy listening to this. Again, showcase format! Many stories, many tellers!

Quest

Another show I’m performing in, so I’ll move right along. To conclude, actually.