Phil the Void: Motherbanking Bankholes

Phil the Void: Motherbanking Bankholes by Phil the Void

Okay, so let’s get out of the way immediately the fact that he’s a skilled performer, with a relaxed and conversational style. I want to get it out of the way, because the fact that he’s really entertaining is in many respects the least interesting part of the show.

Speaking as both an armchair economics geek and a political comedy writer, I have a great interest in the problem of writing jokes about economics. The problem, I find, is that so much of comedy revolves around shared knowledge and shared experience, and the vast bulk of audience doesn’t give a shit about macroeconomics. You can find yourself in the strange position of having to give almost a mini-lecture to an audience to educate them on a subject to a sufficient level of being able to grasp a given joke. The alternative is doing the glib and superficial thing (e.g. making a joke about how paying taxes sucks, versus trying to build some riff on the whole underlying system and the invisible gun and the audience’s eyes are glazing over…)

So there’s a strange tension, in a show of this nature, between conveying information and telling jokes. What was the major event for our species in the cradle of civilization ten thousand years ago, he asks? The agricultural revolution, I think, and everything that came with it – construction of stable cities, specializing of individual professions, et cetera. Beer, is the answer he gives, and proceeds to riff on it for about five minutes. And, wait – I’m prepared to consider your premise, but I need more information than this. I mean, the brewing of beer occurs in relatively isolated tribal societies as well, yes? So there’s a part of my brain running off and wanting him to cite sources. And, of course, that would be the absolute death of a comedy show.

Likewise, later on, he jokes about our crazy Uncle Sam, who doesn’t let us swear or look at naked women, but buys us guns. And while the rest of the audience is laughing and having a great time, I’m thinking, wait – who is Uncle Sam in this scenario? The government? That doesn’t make sense. The government’s never given me guns, or tried to stop me from swearing or looking at naked women. Unless he means some sort of collective cultural force that does those things, but Lord knows I don’t live and work in a community like that. I can’t laugh at the joke, because the metaphor doesn’t make sense to me.

And on it goes. A red flag goes up for me when he claims that trickle-down economics has been “thoroughly debunked”, because it’s always a red flag when people claim there’s no debate to be had in hotly-debated issues. And he’s off on another metaphor, ridiculing a trickle-down paradise of capitalist deer and corporate rabbits, and I’m still five minutes back.

(Saying in my head, no, the very reason that both sides can argue economics indefinitely is because economics is a complex system, and while trends within complex systems can be mapped over time, it’s extraordinarily difficult to accurately correlate cause and effect, despite how confidently both Republicans and Democrats claim to be able to do so, and once again even pausing to *consider* these very problems would kill the show dead. But the problem I find myself having is that by *not* engaging with these complexities, the jokes often come off as manipulative – at their worst, becoming the very thing that they’re ridiculing – and I’m intensely resistant to that in comedy.)

So I’ve once again composed a review picking apart my frustrations, and I’ve probably made it look like I hated it, which isn’t at all true. In fact, I think that the very reason that all of these issues leap out at me is because of how admirably ambitious the whole thing is. He proposes a history of freakin’ money at the top of the show – so, yeah, it comes off as meandering and disjointed. It’s easy to be focused when you’re doing a storytelling show deconstructing your own sex life. So, did I find it wholly satisfying? No – but, man, I’ve just got admire the damn testicular fortitude of the thing.

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Scientist Turned Comedian

Scientist Turned Comedian by Tim Lee

I’m not a scientist myself, but my father is, and I grew up with a lot of awareness of and exposure to that community – not to mention the fact that I’ve spent most of my adult life dating one on and off. The end result of this is not that I became a scientist, but rather, a citizen on the side of science. Add to that the fact that I’m an entertainer with a great love of stand-up comedy, and I fall smack in the middle of the Venn diagram for this show.

The schtick is fairly straightforward, alternating between traditional stand-up routines and humorous commentary on a PowerPoint presentation. Most of the jokes begin by introducing a chart or scientific concept, briefly encapsulating it, then applying it to something absurd in human relationships or popular culture. (In fact – and this may be something of a bizarre parallel – his routines reminded me of Lewis Carroll’s early logic textbooks, in which he would humorously demonstrate logic concepts by incorrectly applying them in illogical ways.)

One thing that struck me about this is that, in many respects, this show is a triumph of *branding* — it’s hard for me to visualize a comedian (although he has presumably done this) standing in a comedy club and opening with an explanation of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. But by labeling himself as a scientist-turned-comedian, not only are we prepared for it, it’s eagerly anticipated – the title’s ensured our complicity with the jokes.

Oh, and the show was really good.

Mother Tongues

Mother Tongues by Core Project Chicago

Dances are very well-executed – let’s get that out of the way immediately, so we can look at some of the underlying mechanic of the show.

Schtick consists largely of audio and video of a series of interviews with subjects about their mothers, which then informs various dances and movement sequences. At their best – which is often – they do a very good job of *illustrating* the subjects being talked about, without literally *representing* them. For the most part, I found these engaging – the movement from one gesture to another is easy to follow when the dancers’ varying attitudes, relationships, and goals are clear.

There are some stretches of time where they’re not, particularly in the beginning, with the first and second dances (well, what I’m calling the first and second dances – the sequences are tightly composed enough that it’s not always entirely clear where one ends and another begins, and let me be clear that that’s a good thing). In those moments where I lost the thread connecting one idea to another, I found myself watching what appeared to me to be a series of abstract movements, and my attention drifted. Wondering, perhaps, how much of what I was seeing was a kind of Dark Side of the Rainbow dissonance – after all, if you present an image and play a sound, the mind’s going to try to forge a connection between the two.

This was the exception rather than the rule, however – for the most part I found it pleasurable to follow. My only other complaint is, perhaps, wishing for a more prominent role for the audio/video sequences – they consisted mostly of fragmented moments pulled out of context, and consequently came off as light at best, vapid at worst. I’m aware that it’s a dance show – but if you’re using these statements and observations as an emotional jumping-off point, those statements and observations are for the most part meaningless to me when presented in such a disjointed form.

All of which makes it sound like I hated it, which is far from the case. It’s a reasonably enjoyable show, if you’re prepared to turn off the analysis, sit back, and let the elements intermingle in front of you. In other words, I’m clearly not their target audience – but it’s just as clearly well-done. They received a standing ovation at the end, so it’s quite resonant for some.

Super Spectacular!: To Opera with Love

Super Spectacular!: To Opera with Love by the Donovan Ensemble

Marketable concept, yes? Is a review even necessary? Is it competent? Yes, maybe, and hell yes.

Here’s a show that – the vast bulk of the comedy seems to come from the juxtaposition of opera with pop music, done to great effect – but really, it’s just one of those Goldilocks plays, that seems to hit exactly that right combination of elements. Between the song parodies, the clowning in the frame story, the vaudeville-esque back-and-forth between the duo – one moment flows seamlessly into another, and yes, there’s something for everyone here.

The jokes themselves aren’t terribly innovative – that’s not the point, they’re fairly stock, it’s a classic running-in-and-out swapping wigs and one-liners sort of affair – but it’s incredibly well-executed, and there’s just an insane amount of performance polish on this thing. It’s slick, man, hella slick for a Fringe show.

(If I have a complaint, it’s a purely technical one – in the KC venue I saw them perform in, I lost several of the lyrics under the music – which is a major issue in a show where so much of the comedy is generated by said lyrics. They either need to be miked or the sound levels need to come down.)

But, yes – one of those shows that was sufficiently light, and sufficiently pleasurable, that I don’t find myself having much to say in the way of analysis. It’s fun, it’ll probably be a hit, and it deserves to be.

How Helicopters Figure in My Dreams

How Helicopters Figure in My Dreams by Three Crazy Sons

So here’s a show that I went into pretty much completely blank. The sum total of what I knew was that

1) it had an intriguing (if vague) title,
2) the show image was a football jersey, and
3) the performer seemed like a really nice guy when we were handing out cards.

I show up at 7:03, meaning that I miss the very beginning of the show. I walk in as he’s running over, in detail, a play-by-play of a series of football games that he’s witnessed.

Oh, man…definitely don’t have anything *against* sports, but don’t know anything like enough about them to be able to follow this.

See, didn’t turn out to be a problem, though. Most of what he’s saying doesn’t revolve around reciting scores, but about the emotional impact of certain moments on him. I may not understand the significance of an individual pass, but I recognize that it has significance for him. Intent informs content; the details escape me, but I can follow the broad motions.

This explains why I found his performance of these sections tolerable. It doesn’t explain why I found them riveting.

Part of that, certainly, is his impassioned delivery: his face lights up, his body and voice become incredibly animated – he’s clearly talking about a subject which has great significance for him. And, ultimately, I find myself responding to what he’s saying, because he’s not really talking about football. He’s talking about *obsession*. And, as someone who has engaged in heated, hour-long arguments about which superhero would emerge victorious under what circumstances, obsession is something I can identify with.

These passages are largely defined by the context in which he describes them taking place: at football practice, watching games with his father, watching games *as* a father. Fatherhood is, in fact, the other major subject here, as he discusses his parent’s gradual fading to both cancer and alcoholism.

(The subject is, very clearly, one of intense emotional importance to him; which is why it seems, perhaps, a strange complaint to state that in points of this section of the story, his writing and delivery felt – too raw? Overwrought? His recollections seemed to have greater weight to me when they were understated – observing that his emotional state was terrible, without needing to, necessarily, demonstrate to us that it was.)

(Okay, so, going further – this is a show that strikes me as being born more from a spirit of reflection than of inquiry. This isn’t about trying to create some great grand observation, or to wrest some meaning from his unfortunate circumstances – it’s simply looking back upon those circumstances, arranging them within a narrative, and letting the events occur without trying to impose some sort of meaning upon them. Which, as a writer, I find sort of admirable.)

The threads interweave amiably, intersecting at appropriate emotional points and being, in moments, masterful. Ultimately, what drives this for me is his own stage presence: he’s as charming and likeable onstage as he is off, and in the moments of discussing his love of pro football he’s genuinely vulnerable with us.

It’s a fine storytelling show, one in which I found myself sitting in the audience with a big goofy smile on my face. Definitely for anyone with a love of the sport; but just as definitely for anyone with an understanding of obsession.

Shakespeare Xposed: The History Monologues

Shakesepeare Xposed: The History Monologues by Shaittie Shakespeare

For those new to the blog: I’m currently touring a show in Kansas City, and what I typically do in the weeks leading up to Fringe is use the opportunity to review shows that are coming to Minnesota. This comes with the obvious caveat that they are often at a different stage of development, and the show that I see in KC may not necessarily be the show that you see in Minneapolis. That said – as long as I’m not able to be physically present for the pre-Fringe culture in MN – I might as well exploit the opportunity to offer some extended previews.

Alan Tilson is a performer who has often been performing in the same places as I have, though I’ll confess I’ve never caught one of his shows – his schtick is performances of Shakespeare monologues, essentially an acting showcase, and I tend to favor creative rather than interpretive endeavors at Fringe (he refers to himself as an “Illustrator”).

My observation is that show-biz people tend to be divided on the Bard, either loving or hating his work with little middle ground. I fall firmly in the “love” camp – I think he has an incredible ear for poetic language (by turns melodic and coarse) and psychologically complex character portraits. He’s a clear master in both arenas – there’s a reason why his name (and many of his invented words) have fallen into the popular lexicon, while most of his contemporaries are regarded as academic footnotes. My best guesses as to why he is disliked boil down to A) backlash against his popularity, and B) frustration with the evolving language – and, as someone who has devoted most of his career to adapting English texts that predate Shakespeare by several centuries, the latter’s not so much an irritant for me.

The focus of this show is monologues from the history plays, which strike me as being possibly the least accessible, with their focus on heightened and courtly language. I’d actually be really interested to see his take on the other genres (which he’s done, in other shows).

He opens with an introduction, in which he discusses his passion for the material, as well as offering his thoughts on some of the uniting themes. (I’m not entirely sure that I agree with his thesis of Shakespeare’s belief in love as a healing force – it’s an interpretation widely embraced by the Baby Boomers, but one I struggle to see in the texts themselves.)

So he clearly has a great love for the material, and many years of experience with it, as his programme indicates. But the conceit remains one that I struggle with – that is, removing chunks of text from the source play and presenting them out of context.

For example, he does the “I know thee not, old man” speech from Henry IV. In context, it’s incredibly powerful – a young King Henry turning and delivering a cold, courtly speech to his oldest friend, signifying his intent to sever that part of his life. Out of context, it’s – a cold, courtly speech. There’s no impact.

I found myself thinking that throughout – that there’s a number of the performances here that I might truly enjoy as part of a full production. But the problem with presenting a series of speeches is that they tend to be plucked from the most emotionally heightened sequences of the plays – so we find ourselves leaping from one shrill cry to another. The performance doesn’t pace in a satisfying way.

(I do also think he was ill-suited to the space I saw him performing in, in KC – his style is broad and theatrical, appropriate to wide, open venues, and this space was…intimate. It created the disconnected sensation that he was screaming at me. Even so for some of the smaller, conversational pieces – the prologues and sonnet – I found myself wanting to say, “Dude. Relax. I’m right in front of you.”)

I left with the sensation that he was incredibly engaged with the *physicality* of the language (which is great, because that’s one of the things that’s so much fun about the writing), but often at the expense of the *content*. He rounds his vowels and carefully articulates his consonants, but I feel as though I’m watching someone recite, rather than inhabit, the words.

I was particularly delighted to see prominent place given to Richard II, one of my favorite (and often overlooked) plays. Yet I was squirming in my seat for one of the best speeches: “For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground/and tell sad stories of the death of kings…”

Again, in context? Incredibly powerful. It’s a king, coming to terms with the fact that he’s lost everything, including – most terribly – his own moral certainty. It’s a man at the absolute end of his rope. And Tilson – bellows. He moans, he gesticulates, he – forgive me – saws the air with his hands, thus. I embrace the idea of a wide variety of interpretations – but I simply can’t visualize any production in which Richard behaving this histrionically would make sense to me.

So I find myself with a production that I can never quite engage in – it’s neither fish nor fowl, really, neither fully effective as a set of self-contained poems, nor fully effective as pieces of narrative. It’s frustrating, since there’s clearly an admirable degree of passion and skill on display – but I just can’t wholeheartedly recommend it, when I can’t see what it’s in service of.

Fringe-for-All #1

Hey hey — thoughts on another series of previews, and another one I was involved in — both of my pieces were in the first act, however. (I didn’t anticipate being able to get in, but fortunately — well, for me — the theater wasn’t sold out, and I was able to slip in for the second half.)

One thing that definitely struck me was the number of people taking copious notes — schedules and programmes open in their laps, notating carefully show-by-show. People are really visibly using these to determine what interests them. As for whether or not you agree my own thoughts? Most of these previews should be up on the Fringe site in the next couple of days, so you’re welcome to check them out for yourself.

Nightmare Man by Studio Alathea Productions

I actually had a brief conversation with the performer backstage, in which he outlined some of the interesting stuff they were attempting to do with this. My impression of the performance was mixed: some of the levels didn’t seem that well-balanced, and his voice dropped beneath the music several times, causing me to miss what he was saying. On the other hand, I found the music and vocals themselves to be reasonably interesting, with him pushing his voice up into some very raw and ragged places at moments of tension. I’m a huge fan of horror, so I’ll probably check this out if I get the chance — I’m curious to see if the vocal tension is something that’s sustained throughout the performance.

The Devil Wears 9/11 by John Ervin

Urk. Okay, the performance was fine, with a performer who seemed to really listen to his audience and respond to them well. That said, I don’t really see myself in the audience for this: the character was essentially a right-wing cartoon, spouting monstrosities to draw gasps and laughter from a left-wing audience — it’s the kind of comedy that, in many respects, seems to me to revolve around allowing the left-wing audience to feel superior. There could easily be much, much more to the show than this, but the preview, I’m afraid, didn’t do much to suggest that to me, and since I sit through about a dozen of these shows at every Fringe Festival I go to, I’m inclined to give this one a miss.

Callahan and Lingo presents: The Last Ditch by ACM Productions

Full disclosure: I’m a member of a storytelling group with both of these performers, and have worked with them extensively over the years.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was “Take the worst aspect of your show, and turn it into your marketing hook.” This is one of the clearest illustrations of that idea I’ve seen: they learned that they would be in the Festival within the last week, and they chose to lead with that, in a piece that was sharp, funny, and clear. What it does is showcase their strengths: dry comedy writing and delivery, and a playful back-and-forth with each other — while confronting their obvious weakness (their significant lack of development time) head-on. It’s really the best possible way it could have been approached; hats-off.

License by The Black Butterfly

So this is a company that caught my eye early on, despite their lack of marketing material (and I just pulled up their Fringe site, and, ugh, that is one big wall of undifferentiated text), and I was quite taken by their last preview, which I wrote up here. So what were my impressions this time around?

Much more hesitant, certainly. A different combination of characters, this time around — a mopey indie poet-type amazing a stuffy businessman with some remarkably shallow, posturing language. And there’s two ways this could go: if this show is about ridiculing the pomposity of both of them, that’s something pretty clever that I could really groove on. On the other hand, if this turns out to be a story about the wise artist teaching the stuffy businessman to unlock his inner healing through the power of awful fucking poetry, then that sounds like something really horrific to sit through. It was not clear to me which direction the show is ultimately going from the preview, and I remain — particularly in conjunction with their previous preview — intrigued, if cautious.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Dr. Jekyll by Tim Uren

More disclosure: I’ve also worked with Tim quite a bit.

This is a show that was pretty much a gimme for me: I think the premise is brilliant (a Dr. Jekyll who only *thinks* that he’s transformed into a monster), and it’s put together by one of the finest local monologists and comedians.

If anything, I was surprised at how, er, not-funny the preview was — not that it was trying to be funny and failing, but that it was just a fairly detailed look a neurotic nebbish, with little in the way *jokes*, persay. (Although there were several effectively comic moments of him repeatedly undercutting himself, that wasn’t really what drove the monologue.) If anything, more interested.

Rambler Family Ramblers Final Christmas Reunion Spectacular by OAFtrax Productions

So here was my first really pleasant surprise of the night, a show that wouldn’t have landed on my radar if I hadn’t seen it previewed. This was definitely an example of being more interested in the singer than the song — I didn’t find much of what he was *saying* to be terribly compelling, but was totally engaged by the *way* he told it. He has a fine sense of comic timing, and there’s actually some fairly clever, subtle writing going on here (bits of self-revelation taking place in his own storytelling). Yes, interested now.

Once Upon a CSI by Theatre of the Cheshire Cat

So here’s a preview that I saw, and it was fine, but — it didn’t really do much to convey to me exactly what the show was about that I couldn’t already have gleaned from the title. I mean, if the comedy emerges purely from the mix of incongruous elements (in this case, CSI and faery-tales) — I just saw that, surely? I’m sure there’s more, but I simply don’t know what it might be.

A Good-Natured Gut by LS Dance Collaborative

More disclosure: I have a history of collaborating with dancers, and had the pleasure of directing Liz Schoenborn (one of the dancer/choreographers) in a production earlier this year. I’ve found her to be extremely funny, talented, and creative, and I’ve been looking forward to this show.

I enjoyed the preview piece. A lot of a dance holding my attention hinges on the music they choose, and I was pretty thrilled with their choice; I was also really interested in the mixture of mundane, everyday movements with more stylized dance. If I have a complaint, it’s that most of the choreography seemed to revolve around three bodies snapping into place in unison, and they were often a half-beat off from each other. Still, two weeks until Fringe open.

The Magnificent Story of St. Marlene’s Marvelous Moonshine (Made by Monks) by Christy Marie Kent

I recently wrote a glowing review of her last preview, which I cheerfully stand behind. I’ll confess I was bit disappointed with the preview tonight, mainly because I had the sense that the audience wasn’t getting the opportunity to see what she’s capable of. She’s a storyteller whose style relies on the space *between* words — on long, elaborate buildups and meaningful expressions shared with the audience — and tonight I found her delivery a bit tense and rushed (she skated out right at the 3:00 mark). I suspect, if such speculation isn’t inappropriate, that she attempted to do too *much* material, in too brief a time; I think she would have been better served by creating something briefer, and leaving the space she needs to build her relationship with her audience. That said, still highly recommending the show.

SCOTUS! (Supreme Court of the United States) by Serious Hedgehog Arts

This is a preview that got me both really, really interested, and really, really hesitant about the show. The writer came out, and asserted that, since her cast was in rehearsal, she felt reasonably qualified to talk about the script: and then proceeded to do what was essentially an excellent stand-up routine about the content of the play. Afterwards, I asked her if the play was as funny as she was. We both laughed, but I was only half-joking.

See, there’s no doubt that she’s an excellent comedy writer with a sharp eye for politics, but much of the strength of her performance came from her own dry, deadpan delivery — it’s hard for me to visualize that kind of material playing in another context. So really, the only thing that this preview effectively guaranteed was that the jokes would be good. Which is, actually, a pretty good guarantee for a Fringe show.

Depression Glass: A Cheery Little Play About Death and Decay by 1929 Productions

Er, I’ll confess that I found my attention drifting: an acceptably amusing premise, but the acting was over-the-top in a way that might easily make perfect sense in context, but in three-minute sound-bite form came off as a bit shrill and caused me to tune out.

How Do You See It? by Christopher Watson Dance Company

I mentioned about the previous dance performance that I thought they needed to (and easily could) pull together their performance in the remaining weeks leading up to the Fringe: here’s a company that seems to already be there. (Actually, does anyone if this is a remount? It has the polish of a piece that’s been done before.)

It’s actually an interesting compare-and-constrast case: this is one that revolves around the heightened emotions of the performers, and using dance to express that emotion through movement — which is, I suspect, more accessible; whereas the LS Dance Collaborative revolved, I think, around a fascination with more abstracted movement, which is more my own area of particular interest. I’m actually really interested to hear what other people think about this.

Uncle Tom’s Condo by Milliepadd Productions

Before this, all I really knew about the show was the involvement of Mahmoud Hakima and Kirsten Stephens, who are, in my opinion, two extraordinarily talented local artists. Oh, and that they have a fucking amazing show image.

Similar reaction to this one, as I had to the Rambler family thing — less interested in *what* the performer was I singing, than in the fact that he was singing it extraordinarily well, with a phenomenal sense of comic timing. So, really, I don’t know much of anything beyond the fact that there’s three pretty great performers in it. Which is, once again, a pretty great guarantee for a Fringe show.

Entwined by Awkward Moment Productions

Another performer I’ve worked with often, and another preview which I’ve already reviewed, albeit in much stronger form tonight, I think; she chose a stronger excerpt, gave herself room to play audience response, and left off at exactly the right moment. This was a good storyteller engaging her audience well.

Our Freaking Kids Show by Mainly Me Productions

Another discovery! (Although I’ve been a Josh Carson fan for a while, I didn’t, for whatever reason, register his involvement until tonight.)

As someone who worked in children’s theatre exclusively for six years, I can attest that this conversation is terrifyingly familiar, and one that I partook in many, many times. It seemed to hit just that right balance between natural speech and jokiness that I was willing to follow wherever they led: consider this officially on my list.

Closing Thought: Writing previews is hard.