Let’s get the mechanics of the review out of the way quickly – this is an extremely well-crafted show. She [Allison Broeren] first appeared on the Fringe scene with a show last year that demonstrated an extraordinary ear for language (which is, perhaps, only to be expected, since she’s the co-slam poetry master of Minneapolis) in a show that was a bit of a mish-mash of elements. She demonstrates her same facility for verbal pyrotechnics this time around, but this time has developed structure — one story flows seamlessly into the other, and they all come together to reinforce the same set of ideas. It’s sledgehammerish in places – more about that later – but this is an astonishingly well-crafted show, and one that was intensely appreciated by its audience. People laughed, they were moved, and word-of-mouth is going to spread very quickly about this one.
So I’d like to take the initiative to go ahead and talk about some more uncomfortable stuff.
Matthew Everett described her as my “doppelganger” last year, since there’s a lot of similarities in style and approach to our writing. This year, I was even more struck by that fact. See, I grew up in Rochester, the home of the Mayo Clinic. My father is a doctor. My mother is a nurse. The love of my life is a medical student, and I, too, live with an obscure, incurable, and at times physically debilitating disease. My sister had cancer growing up – I spent a lot of my childhood in hospitals. I remember going straight to the hospital every day after school, because I needed to be on hand in case anything happened.
The point that I’m trying to make is that I grew up in the world that she’s describing in the play. I’ve seen firsthand a lot of the horrors that she’s talking about. And I walked away with…some very different impressions.
Now, I guess as some sort of ideal, objective reviewer, I should be able to examine this show as its own entity, without being caught up by everything surrounding it, the aspects that the artist has no control over. But that’s difficult – it’s difficult when it’s surrounding such an intensely emotional topic – a topic that’s costing people their lives. And it’s very difficult when I walk out of the theatre, surrounded by an audience with tears streaming down their faces, enraged, galvanized, galvanized to go out and – try to destroy everything I’ve spent my life defending, honestly.
See, political comedy is difficult to pull off. It’s difficult because so much of comedy revolves around setting an audience at their ease, and politics – doesn’t really do that. So I had a very different experience of the show than the people sitting around me did.
The show is definitely at its strongest when it’s at its most personal – when it’s a description of struggle and strength in the face of struggle, handled with a healthy degree of self-reflection and irony. But the sudden, emotional twists come off as intensely manipulative. I walked away from this show feeling as I often do when I watch Michael Moore – I was laughing a lot, and I really grooved on a lot of the anger, but – suddenly a message came out of left field. And it’s one that only emerges as a logical extension of the comedy if you accept the underlying assumptions. If you don’t, this show doesn’t really have anything to say to you – and it’s not interested in trying.
So, yeah. I laughed at the horrible situations that she found herself in. I was angry at all the times I was supposed to be angry, but I suspect at…some very different targets, than the ones I was supposed to be going after. It’s not that I need to share the ideology of political theatre I watch – far from it. Hell, if that was the case, I’d never be able to see another Fringe show again – and what a loss that would be.
So I can’t really separate the personal from the political, because the show doesn’t. Artistically, this is well-crafted, it’s supporting a cause that everyone in the audience is enthusiastic about, and if you’re reading this, you’ll probably love it. But the political half of the show is wound tightly around every word. The tales of personal struggle are compelling stuff – but I can’t ignore the fact that it’s used in a way that’s profoundly manipulative. It pulls the audience into a moral position, without coming close to examining how profoundly complex the underlying issues are. It ridicules targets in the medical profession that are suffering as deeply as anybody, and that doesn’t sit well with me. It’s a weapon in a cause that – yeah – really, honestly kills people. It doesn’t play fair. And maybe it doesn’t have to – I’m clearly in the extreme minority, and I’m a well-established crackpot when it comes to politics. But the only experience I can report on is my own. And this was rough going.