SHOW TITLE: Mrs Mortimer’s Xenophobic Travel Guide
PRODUCER: Hardcover Theater
HAILING FROM: Minneapolis
SHOW DESCRIPTION: A Victorian-era Englishwoman teaches children about the nasty habits of foreigners. Some of her prejudices are what you’d expect; others are surprising. They’re all hilarious! And she was a real person.
CAVEAT: I have worked with the writer/director, Steve Schroer, in a variety of capacities in the past couple years.
Steve expressed some concern to me that this was structurally different from so many shows that he’d done in the past – it isn’t sustained by a conventional narrative – and his fear that it would be difficult to sustain audience interest. I don’t know if that fear was justified or not, but I think that he was well-served by it regardless, because this is a very, very clever script. The inspired touch is the addition of a presenter, who functions both a historical interpreter and a kind of straight man. The comic timing between the two of them is inspired.
This is also one of those shows that I’m not sure how to recommend, because I am so clearly the target audience for it. I’ve written in the past about my childlike glee for old-timey racism, and this is the most concentrated source of it I’m ever likely to find.
I had some initial concern that the performance of the titular Mrs. Mortimer was excessively stylized – she clips her consonants and rounds her vowels to an absurd degree – but upon reflection, I think that this is both deliberate and wise.
I’m going to blather about my mime/movement background for a moment. Jacques Lecoq wrote about the concept of bouffon clowning, which basically emerged from this observation: when he had an impassioned speaker perform, and a clean-cut, well-dressed figure mock them, the result seemed horribly cruel; but if the mocker was grotesque, misshapen in some way, the results were hilarious. Setting some kind of clear otherness to the clown made it okay to laugh at them.
It’s pretty clearly visible in our own popular culture, from Archie Bunker to the great bouffon of our own time, Eric Cartman – that if a character appears grotesque and ridiculous to us, they can get away with saying anything. And I would say that that’s the underlying mechanism of this show, as well – because we find Mrs. Mortimer so totally ridiculous, we can safely point and laugh at her xenophobia without feeling that we’re implicating ourselves.
If there is a deeper level to this (and I’m not entirely certain that there is), it’s a nice illustration of the notion that racism is not the invention of Americans – our own complex views are the result of a series of incredibly complex political interactions that run back centuries.
But honestly? I don’t want to deal with the show on that level, because I was cackling with delight the entire time. This wasn’t my favorite show of the Fringe, but it was definitely the hour that provided me with the most unmixed delight.
Questions? Comments? Enraged invective? Check out my answers to occasionally asked questions in Notes on Notes, or the contact info linked from that page!