Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Look What I Can Do!

One of the most bizarre and wonderful characters created during the run of MADtv was a little boy named Stuart Larkin who was brilliantly portrayed by Michael McDonald. No matter what kind of trouble Stuart got into, there was usually a moment during which he stopped the action and said "Look what I can do!"

What followed was the kind of spastic dance pantomime that only a five-year-old could believe was interesting.  The following two video clips offer classic moments showing Stuart at his finest.

Outrageous characters always find a special place in the audience's heart. Christopher Guest taught everyone that casting a mockumentary with skilled comedians can produce unforgettable results. Here's the trailer for 1997's Waiting for Guffman.

And here's the trailer from a subsequent Christopher Guest mockumentary entitled Best In Show, which featured Jane Lynch (back in 2000, before she made it big as Coach Sue Sylvester in Glee).

For those who have fantasized about what might happen if the characters in Waiting for Guffman and Best In Show united to produce a sequel, we now have the answer.

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Written and directed by Michelle EhlenPop-U-Larity features a new group of talentless losers who clearly fit Christopher Guest's criteria. Their ultimate goal is to win the annual Pop-U-Larity singing contest in the small town of Penskeegee. Some, however, are battling severe handicaps.
  • Charlene Hornsby (Michelle Ehlen) is a lesbian cowgirl who thinks her horse, Beth, has special musical talents.
  • Celeste (Betty Ouyang) hopes her singing will help her win the competition but, in the meantime, is trying to use her healing powers to help Charlene apologize to the soul of her favorite cow whom she sold off to an eager buyer, only to see Bessie led to the slaughterhouse by her new owner.
  • Another contestant (David Monster) has glued a horn to his scalp so that he can enter the Pop-U-Larity contest as a singing unicorn. Unfortunately, he's having trouble getting the horn to come off.
Katrina Whitman (Ashley Cuellar) has won the
Pop-U-Larity contest for four years in a row

Then there is Katrina Whitman (Ashley Cuellar), who has been Penskeegee's Miss Pop-U-Larity for the past four years. Katrina, who fancies herself to be the next Britney Spears, has tried to pattern her career on what she's learned from watching television. Thus, she is proud to point to her loyal gay following (Linda Andersson) whenever she performs.

Feverishly attending to Katrina's every need is Sebastian Walker (Chadwick), a screaming queen who's got a diva just dying to burst out of him. And Sebastian is sitting on a really big secret.

Having flown into town to act as host/emcee for Penskeegee's 25th Annual Pop-U-Larity contest, Marcellas Reynolds is a bit taken back to find himself sharing the stage with Chicken Boy, the mascot from a local fast food franchise.

Marcellas Reynolds is the host of the Pop-U-Larity contest,
which is supported by Chicken Boy.

More surprises await the audience and judges. Although Marcia Anderson (Pamela Wick) and her "artistic" son used to compete as a team for many years, Danny (Krys Fox) left Penskeegee for New York, hoping to make it big in the Big Apple. Having undergone a radical transformation, Marcia's prodigal son has now returned home with a new name, Darque, and a new partner, Ness (Thessaly Lerner) for his performance art piece.

When Ness gets booted from the competition, it's Mama's turn to come to the rescue by joining Danny Boy in the cheerful "Die, Motherfucker, Die" number.

Marcia Anderson (Pamela Wick) and her son, Darque (Krys Fox)
have always entered the Pop-U-Larity contest as a team

Pop-U-Larity is a classic example of what one driven person can do on a severely limited budget. The film is written, directed, and produced by Michelle Ehlen (who plays Charlotte Hornsby). Ehlen also receives credit for the cinematography and film editing. She has obviously studied Christopher Guest's playbook very carefully.

Ms. Ehlen knows what she wants, has done a solid job of creating it, and deserves credit for delivering a highly entertaining product. Pop-U-Larity is a fun film to watch that succeeds because of its charming cast,  its goofy sense of humor, and moments of great, laugh-out-loud silliness. Here's the trailer.

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I first saw Sarah Abbey's monologue, The Weight Game, during the 2010 San Francisco Fringe Festival. Directed by Joya Cory, the piece allows Ms. Abbey to inhabit the souls of various women who have suffered from eating disorders and food-related low self esteem.

Whether these characters reflect her own experience as an elementary school teacher confronting a month filled with student birthday parties (all accompanied by a tempting parade of cupcakes and brownies) or a hospitalized anorexic teenager who has decided that if she starves herself to death, at least people will be begging her to eat, each rings true with a poignancy that is often funny, but more consistently bittersweet.

Sarah Abbey in The Weight Game

Since then, Abbey has grown into performing her show and become more comfortable with the transitions from one character to the next (often accomplished with the addition of a headband, scarf, or baseball cap accompanied by a slight change in accent and posture). As she explains on her website:
"I'm an actor/teacher who has struggled with disordered eating for years. As I've grown up, I have taken those challenges and managed to find some humor in them. Diets, weight loss, starving, and binging -- these are all words and issues that most of our society deal with on a daily basis. We may deal with them personally or face them by watching a friend, sister, brother, parent, or child deal. I believe that we are a society obsessed with weight. We are obsessed with the challenge and the game of trying to lose it or gain it, but never just sit with it.
I started writing The Weight Game four years ago on a whim and love creating an experience during which people can come together to laugh and cry at all the insane things we do with regard to food. This play is no longer just a piece for me to perform; it has become a way for me to bring the taboos of the eating disorder world out into the public and connect with others who share them."
Sarah Abbey in The Weight Game

While it's easy to see how Sarah's connections with others battling food-related OCD impulses helped to supply her with plenty of material for her show, Abbey has taken the concept one step further by using Kickstarter as a way to help raise the necessary funding for a brief run of performances through February 18 at Noh Space. This is a woman who is taking control of her body, her performances, and her producing needs with increasing confidence. It's a most appealing process to watch.

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