Minnesotans to the Rescue

M: Hey, have you met Sigal?
ME: Um, wait a minute — got off the wait list at the last minute, no publicity, no pre-show buzz, just rolled into town?
M: That’s her.
ME: And you want me to…
M: Yeah. (to her) phil’s a blogger for the TCDP, and he owes me a few favors. (to me) You cool with this?
ME: Yeah, I got it.
M: Cool. (leaves)
SIGAL: Hi!
ME: Okay. Explain to me why I should care about your show in ten words or less.
SIGAL: Um…
ME: That’s one word.
SIGAL: Shit.
ME: That’s two words.

(dead silence)

So, aside from my being a total jackass, she proved to be charming, appealing, and playful, both in her preview and in person. Moreover, she just came all the way from San Francisco. I’m sure we can make it all the way to Franklin Avenue for her.

The title of her show is Sure to Cure, Dr. Amelia’s Medicine Show. Medicine shows? I love medicine shows! They’re like vaudeville and capitalism, two of my favorite things. Moreover, from her show description:

Old-time snake-oil huckster meets new-age self help guru—all in one doctor!

Ooh, satirey! Not that I have the faintest idea which direction she’s going with that — but as someone who has been extremely critical of the new-age and self-help movements, the parallel to medicine-show hucksterism is fascinating to me.

And as someone who’s done his share of touring, I empathize heartily with her current situation. Not just an opportunity to see a clever, funny show, but to be ambassadors of goodwill. Check her out, and let’s show ‘em what Minnesotans are made of.

(Er, passive-aggression? Liberal guilt?)

No, you ninnies: alcohol-induced hospitality. Let’s not let either Sigal Shoham or Arthur Guinness down.

Rorschach Theatre

I was stage-managing Kirsten and Dean’s show (Silent Poetry 2) down in Kansas City. Kirsten has a pretty awesome piece about a conductor who ends up battling her own hand. It’s a fine bit of slapstick, but one that also encourages further interpretation from its audience.

And one thought strikes me — does mime lend itself to interpretation because its boundaries are so vaguely defined? Relying as heavily as it does on audience visualization, there’s a point at which anything can represent anything.

I saw a preview of Joseph Scrimshaw’s show (The Tragedy of You) a few months back — the premise is that he interviews a random audience member and, based on details from their life, plugs them into a five-act Shakespearean tragedy.

The night I attended, a lot of his questions were responded to with political gibes: “Name a war-hungry general.” “General Bush!” “Name a politician.” “Senator Franken!” The upshot is that, for the night that I was in attendance, at least, the whole evening took a satirical bend — and one that I found kind of depressing as a political comic: the audience laughed gaily throughout, but they were responding only to the basic structure, with the pieces that they recognized inserted into appropriate places.

Oscar Wilde once said “Art reflects the audience, not the artist.” Which is a lovely little poetic sentiment, except for the fact that it almost entirely removes the artist from the equation of creation. I’m reminded of the man who said to the Jewish director Fritz Lang, after a viewing of his Metropolis, “You’re right. Hitler should be in power.”

Do I accept the premise that his interpretation is as valuable as mine? Is that really all that satire breaks down to? All that so much of art and storytelling breaks down to?

Out-of-Towner Showcase

ME: Is this your first time in Minnesota?
HER: Yes, it is.
ME: How is handing out postcards going?
HER: What do you mean?
ME: Y’know, are people making eye contact? Smiling?
HER: Well, they’re kind of fake-smiling.
ME: (spreading arms) Welcome to Minnesota!

I attended the out-of-towner showcase on Wednesday. To be honest, I was far too fatigued to form a fair or coherent response to everything I saw. I would like to toss out the following Quick Thoughts™:

– There was one piece called Habitat: A Documentary Theater Project. The basic thrust of this one is that the text is largely stapled together from a series of interviews with homeless folks in Duluth. So the project looks fascinating, and like something I’d really like to read — but I was really struggling with the performance aspects of it. Why?

Okay. I’m going to jump back for a moment to that old debate about music stands — storytellers tend to get very dogmatic about whether or not their use is appropriate in live performance. I’ve used both — roughly half of my storytelling shows have been memorized, and half have been read. It’s a fairly calculated decision based on what I’m doing at any given time, often driven more by instinct (with a retroactive rationalization) rather than reason.

But one thought strikes me: every autobiographical show I’ve performed has been performed with notes as reference. The one time I tried to do one without, I was extremely uncomfortable with the results.

Now, this was flashing through my head as I was watching the preview for Habitat. There were a number of actors onstage, playing a number of the characters who had been interviewed. And I found myself growing — as I often do with docudrama — extremely uncomfortable with the artifice: that each performer chose some kind of over-the-top physicality or voice to represent each character. Except that these aren’t fictional constructs: they’re people.

If I’m telling you about something my dad said or did, I don’t want to create a walk or an accent or something: I want to just tell you. And I found myself wanting, rather, to be told about these people, rather than watching someone attempt to counterfeit the reality of their experience.

Of course, everything we’re doing is counterfeit: but I’m comforted by the reminder that we’re experiencing reality filtered through another’s perception. I’m uncomfortable with the exercise of theatre tricks and illusions on a project that is — at least theoretically — documentary.

– On the flip side, the high point for me was Was My Brother in the Battle? SONGS OF WAR, which is really nothing more than an extremely well-done song recital. One of the draws is definitely that I’m pretty sure I know the lyrics to every damn song on the bill, but another — after last night’s performance — is the fact that the key performer is not only a skilled singer but able to effectively emote through the music.

And tying back to my earlier point — the song he chose to preview with was And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda, a fairly intense little war story narrated from the point of view of a crippled veteran. He at no point pretends to be this crippled veteran — he doesn’t limp or sit in a wheelchair — but he speaks in the first person, and nevertheless emotionally engages in the song, and engages with us — but as himself, and through the music.

– It is not impossible that I’ve read far, far too much Brecht.

Spermalot: The Musical (Rehearsal Edition)

I first met Thatcher Williams in the 2007 Iowa Fringe Festival: since my road trip was taking me through Des Moines, I looked him up to see if he’d be interested in going out for a drink or something, and was delighted to be invited to one of his final rehearsals of Spermalot, which is playing at the Minnesota Fringe.

With the caveat that what I witnessed was only a rehearsal, sans costumes and, well, audience (comedy without an audience is something akin to professional wrestling without an audience), I’m prepared to state that it’s exactly what the title sounds like, and for me that was A Good Thing. The songs in particular are excellent, effectively parodying a variety of musical-theatre styles. The awkward, artificial choreography is a very old joke, but the reason it’s an old joke is because it’s a very good joke, and a funny one. (Also, the two female cast members totally shone, both in singing and comedy chops.)

(On the other hand, the comedy dialogues that interspersed the songs could be hit-or-miss for me: it’s faithful to the parody, with that dopey, obvious, presentational kind of comedy, but could occasionally fall into being as wince-inducing as the stuff they’re ridiculing.)

The puppetry work was interesting: all of the main characters are played by hand-held puppets, which are held up next to the actors’ faces, presumably to take advantage of both: the quirky movements of the sperm bodies and the expressiveness of the actors’ faces. This was about halfway successful for me. I found myself wanting more movement from the various spermatazoa (and if I had a nickel for every time I’d written that sentence, I’d have, uh, one nickel), but often they would simply be bobbing in space or just opening and closing their mouths. So while the actors had extremely animated faces and necks, the puppets would often be sitting limply by their sides, which feels like a bit of a missed comic opportunity.

Still — it’s Spermalot. It’s dumb, it’s dorky, it’s entertaining. And I’d totally buy a soundtrack if they had one.

2009 Kansas City Fringe Review: Thursday, July 24th

The Miniature Housewife

So I saw this show, and I started off by being incredibly resistant to it, mainly because the audience was laughing pretty steadily throughout, and I don’t think I laughed once. It’s full of some pretty inventive sight gags, but I don’t find being zany necessarily the same thing as being funny. (The Zucker Brothers disagree.)

Okay, but once I shut out everyone else’s response and just tried to approach the show on its own merits, I found myself really fascinated with the whole thing. It’s basically a kind of dark satire of that image of the nineteen-fifties homemaker (one who is, in this case, literally married to her own house). So maybe it’s some association that I’m bringing to this, but I found the protagonist to be far too familiar – to resemble far too many women that I’ve known – if not broken women, then, well, breaking ones.

I found the several video sequences that punctuated the show to be particularly disturbing – images of a hideously made-up woman, in which she speaks through a series of fragmented close-ups. It really seemed to be effectively ripping to shreds that plastic conception of beauty.

The people around me seemed to find those images hysterical. There was also much physical business that won laughter, including a long dance sequence by the titular housewife. And while the movements she was making were absurd, I couldn’t find much funny in them: they didn’t emerge from joy, but everything about her conveyed misery and exhaustion. She smiles at us, but that smile is no more real than that of Marceau’s mask maker.

She’s also an extraordinarily versatile singer, shifting easily into a number of styles with incredible vocal control. And more importantly, the songs did exactly what theatrical songs are supposed to do: they revealed the internal life of the character, in a way that couldn’t be indicated by text.

I didn’t really buy the ending – I hadn’t seen anything leading up to that point to indicate to me that she was capable of taking the action she ultimately did. At least, it was inconsistent with the character and the story I was seeing, whether or not it was consistent with what they were doing. So, I clearly didn’t have the same experience as everyone else in the audience – but the experience I had was a compelling one. Easily my favorite show of the Fringe.

2009 Kansas City Fringe Reviews: Tuesday, July 22nd

Veni, Vidi, Vici

Okay, so this was a piece by someone who’s obviously a tremendously skilled performer, but one that lost me very quickly; the action is meandering, and I found it difficult to follow the logic of it. Basically, she discovers a piece of chalk and improvises various rules as to what she can do with it (lines drawn cannot be crossed, unless circular “doors” are drawn through them, et cetera). This business was clever. The show description indicates that this is some sort of indictment of human greed, or something.

What she’s physically doing in the space seems to be incidental to her character-building work, which is driven by her relationship to the audience. And while her physical and vocal performance is crisp (though I did find the high-pitched squeaking she uses to communicate grating), I found myself wanting her to hold still and communicate something, make something happen – the bulk of the show consists of her performing a simple action, giggling, and looking to us for our response.

The show is primarily about her relationship to us (or, at least, that’s what she devotes the bulk of her time and energy to onstage). And I’m not simply referring to the audience-interactive sequences of the show (although those could be difficult to follow, as well – it wasn’t always entirely clear what she wanted us to do, and the fact that her character was taunting us through that process kind of complicated that) – in many respects, our response seems to dictate the nature of the show we get. So in fairness to the performer, we weren’t a very responsive audience – in fairness to us, I don’t know that we were given much to respond to.

Bear Hugs and Bingo Balls

I’ve been a fan of Mike Shaeffer for years – I see his stuff religiously, and in fact I think I’d previously seen every piece that he did here. I’d cheerfully sit through it again. For me, seeing one of his shows is like kicking back and popping in a favorite album – so I’m way past the point where I have any idea what this looks like to someone who hasn’t seen his stuff before.

It’s exactly what it sounds like – rapid-fire, profane, pop-cultural spoken-word comedy. If you don’t get one particular reference, don’t worry – five more will be by in the next twenty seconds, as he sifts and sorts through Gen-X detritus like a one-man episode of Family Guy.

One thing that’s been striking me the past couple of times that I’ve seen him – and in this particular show as well – is that what he does works because of his vulnerability; his dirty jokes aren’t leered at us, but delivered with all of the giggling schoolboy fun of arrested adolescence. He has a genuine love for his chosen subject matter, as he leaps from parodies of Hunter S. Thompson to George Romero to a bevy of classic rock musicians; if you know half of the people he’s talking about, it’s impossible not to share that warmth. And judging by the sheer range of the things that he loves, it’s likely that you will.

Naughty Knickers – Take II

This is exactly what it sounds like: lithe and attractive girls remove their clothes in ways that are equal parts athletic and ironic. Performers are uniformly excellent in both arenas.

Bizarre as it may seem to apply too much analysis to this, one quick thought – I’ve seen a couple of burlesque shows by now, and they seem to follow a variety of formats – often the dancing girls will be alternated with other specialty acts (comedy, magic, et cetera). This, on the other hand, is pure burlesque. The danger of that is that the action can grow repetitive, when you’re seeing essentially the same kind of material over and over again – there’s a numbing effect from over-stimulation. Both good sex and good comedy are all about rhythm changes. There’s a reason that it’s more exciting to watch a girl undress for you than it is for her to just walk into the room naked – it’s the suspense and the anticipation.

That said, they actually do a pretty impressive job of finding ways to mix up the formula. (Including a piece by a girl who, yes, walks into the room naked.) So I may just be jaded, as part of the generation that grew up with internet porn, but novelty is stimulating.

The Death of Cupid

Okay, so let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way – this has extraordinary production values for a Fringe show, and the ensemble is superb (as nearly as I can tell, it’s made up of a kind of KC Fringe All-Stars). It’s an impressive intellect that could conceive of this wide variety of elements and bring them together into anything resembling coherent. It’s well-done and it’ll be a Fringe hit and it deserves to be and you should see it and you’ll enjoy it. So with all that nonsense out of the way, I’d like to take a minute to dig into what I found to be the most interesting part – the text.

This is basically a loose adaptation of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. I’m actually a big fan of Aristophanes – The Birds is my single favorite play ever written – and while this is the one that’s likely most familiar to modern audiences, it’s one that I’ve struggled with. Lysistrata is about a woman who organizes a sex strike in order to stop a bloody and senseless war. So it’s found continuing life both in the feminist movement and in the pacifist movement (since the play is, at least superficially, anti-war), and theatres love to do readings of it whenever we invade another country and yadda yadda.

However, her status as one of literature’s first anti-war protestors isn’t sufficient for this production: here, they need to re-invent her also as a kind of champion of secular humanism, capable of facing off with (and ultimately overthrowing) the gods. This is mainly achieved by stapling Aristophanes’ plot to a kind of celestial battle between rational thought (represented by Athena) and divine fate (represented by Cupid); between free will and predestination; between individualism and collectivism. Heady stuff, and there’s also a lot of fun had in the clever re-invention of various Greek gods (I particularly found Mercury’s cameo to be laugh-out-loud hilarious). This is also the section of the play which most frequently skates into melodrama – nearly every character gets (at least one) overwrought speech (with key phrases repeated, suddenly and with great intensity, to make the audience jump – TO MAKE THE AUDIENCE JUMP).

I found the script to be at its most tolerable when its ideas are understated – despite superb performances from each actor, I caught myself wincing when they abandoned their irony and self-awareness. (I found the scene between Lysistrata and the magistrate of Athens to be particularly egregious – he repeatedly beats her, apparently for no other purpose than to shock the audience into hating him enough to completely discredit his ideology.)

Okay, but all of these issues I’m having are really a tip of the hat to the strength of the adaptation. If Lysistrata comes off as a shrill, emotionally manipulative political cartoon (and please note that that’s a reference to the character, not to the actor’s performance, which I found to be remarkably controlled), well, she does in the source text, too. It’s the very reason why she’s been so widely loved for so long, and why I’ve always found her kind of obnoxious. In the programme, the writer boasts that his play asks some dangerous questions: I’m curious as to what, precisely, those questions are.

Pre-Fringe Profile: The Problem of the Body: Why Is Our Society Ashamed of Bodily Urges?

SHOW TITLE: The Problem of the Body: Why is our society ashamed of bodily urges?
PRODUCER: Prof. Rudman
HAILING FROM: Minnesota
SHOW DESCRIPTION: Like John Waters channeled through Sir Kenneth Clark, Prof. Rudman examines contemporary American attitudes toward bodily urges by comparing recent media coverage with jaw-dropping imagery from other cultures.
WHAT CAUGHT MY INTEREST: The combination of the political and the historical. It’s a bull’s-eye for my corner of geekdom.

Just who do you think you are, anyway?

Damon Rudman is the Jonathan Wad Endowed Professor and Proctor of Scatology and Sexology at the Upper United States University (Up.U.S.U.). (Actually, it’s a nom de theatre, but I got a mortgage to pay, and it might be hard to work if every time someone Googles me they get what they may consider “salacious filth.”)

So what’s the big idea?

Many people decry the amount of sex and vulgarity in US media today. They feel that our society is losing its way, and they long for restoration of “traditional” decency. However, history and anthropology prove that prudishness has seldom been the norm. On the contrary, in comparison to other cultures, we still stand out as uncommonly ashamed of our bodies and their urges; acknowledging them is seen as perverse and suppressing them is seen as natural.

By juxtaposing contemporary media with artifacts and verbal accounts from other times and places, this show will deconstruct contemporary attitudes surrounding our urges for sex, food, sleep, and the defecatory urges (including belching, spitting, nose-picking, farting, pissing, and shitting).

How did you come up with a screwy idea like that?

Our bodies are always near at hand. Urges arise regularly. Isn’t it nuts to feel ashamed about them? What virtue is there in repression? Why should prigs hold the moral high-ground?

Why should I care?

Expect mind-blowing edutainment! Fun for your whole family—if your family don’t mind dirty pictures and stuff.

Justify your show’s existence in haiku form.

Bodies not dirty
Repression is perverse
Laughter can free us