A good storyteller is one who’s able to weave interesting anecdotes out of pretty much anything. At its heart, this is the latest in the burgeoning genre of office comedies (albeit with a somewhat greater-than-usual proportion of bureaucratic insanity) – but the dude is sufficiently likeable and enthusiastic to make the hour a pleasure. The driving engine of the story is a ludicrously petty bit of psychological warfare taking place between himself and one of his colleagues, and the various complications which result from it. It’s not really a must-see or a life-changer, and there’s times I wish he would have plumbed a little deeper – there’s a weirdness, after all, to finding yourself in the odd position of having your own self-worth determined by some bureaucratic rat-race – but it’s pleasant enough, and worth checking out on its own merits.
(He’s also an auditor, incidentally, Does that mean I should be wary of criticizing him?)
Now here’s a performer who knows how to work her audience – she’s confident, sexy, knows it and uses it. As for the content – as nearly as I can tell, the script is little more than a series of thematically-connected poems that have been stapled together. There are some lovely pieces, and some pretty awesome turns of phrase (“my black-coffee self switched to decaf”), but what’s really impressive about this script is their arrangement – laid out as they are, the show ends up taking on the quality of an expressionistic, stream-of-consciousness monologue, detailing the thousands of contradictions surrounding romantic love. It’s the ability to make such dramatic leaps from one conflicting thought to another that makes this so compelling. It skates towards being maudlin at times (there’s a scene where she talks to a teddy bear), but she consistently pulls it back with the intensity of her performance. She also chose to end on a somewhat syrupy note (“love is you plus me plus hope”) that I personally found off-putting after the thoughtfulness of what preceded it. But hey – the fact that I can still clearly recall so many lines from the show nearly a week after seeing it is an indication of how well-composed this thing is. I saw five shows this weekend, and this one was the clear standout.
There’s a lot to admire here – I’m a huge fan of the source texts, and they do some pretty clever stuff with them, both in terms of writing and staging – which left me scratching my head as to why I wasn’t enjoying it more. This is definitely the first show I’ve seen in the Festival that really seemed to suffer from its assigned space – it’s a movement-heavy show, and their main set piece takes up a huge chunk of the playing area, meaning that the performers are struggling to move up and down a single narrow strip – I really wished I’d had the opportunity to see what they could do with broader, more sweeping movements. Kudos to the actors for committing to their choices with enthusiasm, but I question a lot of the choices that were made – some seemed obvious or heavy-handed (e.g. the toy soldier’s fantasy sequence of the ballerina while on the boat), others emotionally manipulative (although that may be symptomatic of the source material, as well – Andersen has an obsession with the purifying power of suffering that presents some problems for me, so that may be wholly personal).
There are a few cool and inventive images – like the girl with her neck and wrists caught in webbing (though I wish they could have found more things to do with it). Her performance was surprisingly intense in that particular piece, and they played a bit with audience discomfort – which I think could have been pushed even further. I also found the emotional cues provided by the music to be jarring – nearly all of those moments (particularly the ending) would, I think, have been much more powerful in silence. (Also, I don’t know how I feel about the closing image – of having salvation equated with food. Of course, I’m the dude whose Savior is regularly eaten once a week, so this may again be a personal issue.)
Okay. The fact that I’m jumping around and nitpicking so much suggests that I’m having a hard time pinpointing exactly what the show was missing for me. But while there’s a lot of formal inventiveness on display here – and a set of very appealing actors who are prepared to be quite vulnerable with us – at the end of the show, I’m forced to say that I didn’t connect emotionally with the stories that were presented. There was a large and responsive audience present, so I suspect that there’s some barrier that I’m bringing: whatever the case, while I wasn’t glaring at my watch and antsy to get out, I can’t say that I was left with a really transformative experience.
It’s doubtful that this show even requires a review – it has all the makings of a Fringe hit, and deservedly so. But just a few quick, fragmented thoughts:
– Some really nice character work, most notably because it’s so subtle. A lot of actors would be tempted to go for over-the-top, outrageous physicalities – he exercises restraint, and it pays off. This isn’t a stand-up routine, and it’s not that the jokes are necessarily all that funny on their own merits – they’re funny because of who they come from. He gets that, and that’s the main success of the show.
– He also avoids the awkwardness of leaping back-and-forth between characters for rapid-fire dialogue – he chooses one character at a time and allows himself (and us) to settle in with them, showing us the various other characters through his responses to their behavior. The points where he does make the switch are carefully chosen for comic or dramatic effect. There’s an artfulness to this that’s worth lauding.
– So it’s a character-driven piece – but he’s also occasionally willing to throw character out the window in favor of a laugh line, which I found jarring. I particularly found this with the character of the sleazy politician – he’s great and just boatloads of entertaining, but he feels at times like he wandered in from another show entirely. In particular, the scene in which he’s reading to his infant daughter – taking on demonic voices to represent the opposing party – seemed rife with irony, in that that’s sort of what the actor was doing with this character. I appreciated the depiction of him as an affectionate father, but ultimately the character didn’t feel to me like much more than a throwaway gag.
– As opposed to the other driving characters of the piece, who I found totally compelling. Incidentally, this is the second show I’ve seen that revolves around people working on Capitol Hill – this is totally alien to me, and an aspect of DC culture that I find fascinating.