Friday, February 17, 2012

Thanks For The Mammaries

For those who attend lots of screenings and performances, the order in which one sees several shows -- or the juxtaposition of one to another -- can have an interesting effect on one's perception. Last Wednesday, I went to a press screening of a 2-1/2 hour Holocaust film about a group of Jews who survived for 14 months while hiding in the sewers under the city of Lvov.

In Darkness is a fascinating film which quickly grabs a viewer's attention. One never feels the film sagging and the drama passes quickly. By the time it was over, I was ready for some laughs.

That evening (and the following evening as well) I was scheduled to see a staged comedy. Each ran 90 minutes, was filled with lots of bawdy business, and promised a fun time.  Strangely enough, one flew by in a flash while the other seemed like it would never end. One offered the audience a brilliant, fearless 90 minutes of crackpot comedy while the other could, at best, be politely described as crockpot comedy.

Let me explain. When I was in the fifth or sixth grade, my best friend lived in what were then known as "garden apartments." One day, while his mother was still at work, we decided to make a "concoction" by pouring any liquids we could find in her kitchen into a bucket. Floor polish, orange juice, skim milk, cleaning fluid, they all went into a disgusting blend.

We were very proud of ourselves.

George C. Tilyou's famous "Steeplechase" ride in Coney Island

We then took the bucket outdoors to a lawn area where we had once invented a game called Steeplechase (a reference to the mechanical horses which circled George G. Tilyou's Steeplechase Amusement Park in Coney Island). As we raced around the lawn, Marc lost his grip on the bucket handle and the contents scattered all over a patch of grass.

The next day, the grass had turned from green to brown. Nothing grew in that spot for years and we were convinced that brilliant careers as mad scientists were waiting for us.

The above-mentioned lawn at 3008 Avenue R in Brooklyn, New York

I thought of that incident Wednesday evening while checking my watch during the opening night performance of Berkeley Repertory Theatre's production of A Doctor In Spite Of Himself, which is loosely based on Molière's 1666 stage farce, Le Médecin Malgré Lui.  Whether or not you're reviewing a production, it's not a good sign to find yourself sneaking a glance at your watch every 10-15 minutes hoping that the show will soon come to an end.

Devised by Christopher Bayes and Steven Epp, this production (which has already been staged at the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven and the Intiman Playhouse in Seattle) uses the Molière script as a platform on which to pile all kinds of stage business from commedia dell'arte to the low comedy of burlesque. Dressed in colorful costumes designed by Kristin Fiebig, the cast delivers jokes and performs sight gags that have been used from the early days of clowning up to the era of baggy pants vaudevillian comedians and beyond.

Julie Briskman (Jacqueline) and Steven Epp (Sganarelle) in
A Doctor In Spite Of Himself (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Bayes and Epp have thrown in everything from ABBA's "Dancing Queen" (complete with disco ball) to snippets of The Music Man's famous "Rock Island" number; from a sassy black women snapping her fingers at someone to a peasant wife (Justine Williams) with impossibly large and bouncy breasts. Whether having their actors randomly switch from one accent to another or writing a scene in which the buxom Jacqueline (Julie Briskman) can't stop using the word "fuck," what probably seemed like comic genius early in the creative process slowly starts to reek of tedium and desperation in performance.

Justine Williams portrays Martine in
A Doctor In Spite Of Himself (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Oddly enough, the frenetic energy in the writing and execution made me think of a show I saw several years ago in which three men tried to re-enact all the great scenes from their favorite movies in two hours. The creative team for A Doctor In Spite of Himself seems determined to show audiences how well they can shtick it where the sun don't shine. There is a Yiddish term for this phenomenon -- "ongepatchket" -- which loosely translates to "too much of everything all at once."

As the evening wore on, this traveling Bayes & Epp production (although extremely pretty to look at) kept losing steam. After an hour, it began to have about as much appeal as watching a pole dancing contest between Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, and Mitch McConnell (with all three Republicans wearing nothing but rhinestone-encrusted thongs).

Jacob-Ming Trent (Valere) and Allen Gilmore (Géronte) in
A Doctor In Spite Of Himself (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

That's not to say that there aren't some very funny bits of business or some moments of true stage magic in this show. Three exquisite scenes of rapturous theatricality quickly come to mind:
  • One element of the scenic design by Matt Saunders is an outhouse that includes a puppet theatre. As characters move from one side of the stage to another, they pass behind the outhouse where miniatures of their characters can be seen crossing the tiny puppet stage.
  • While much of Aaron Halva's musical score is pretty raucous, late in the evening the cast performs an ethereal semi-operatic septet whose grace, beauty and musicianship stop the show.
  • Thanks to Yi Zhao's lighting and Matt Saunders' set, the show's final sequence -- during which a paper moon rises through the puppet theatre and up into a starry sky -- is breathtaking in its simplicity, sweetness, and style.
Liam Craig, Renata Friedman, Steven Epp, and Julie Briskman
in A Doctor In Spite Of Himself (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Steven Epp is as charming as ever in the pivotal role of Sganarelle, a happy-go-lucky woodcutter who ends up masquerading as a physician. Allen Gilmore's foolish Géronte is dressed to look like an hysterical, overripe tomato; his daughter Lucinde (Renata Friedman) appears as a disaffected teenage goth who is a spoiled brat.

Others in the cast include Chivas Michael as Lucinde's fiancé, Leandre; tenor Jacob Ming-Trent as a cherub, and Liam Craig doubling as Lucas and Thibaut. Greg C. Powers and Robertson Witmer performed on a variety of musical instruments from stage right.

The biggest drawback to this production is its tendency to take a joke or piece of stage business and flog it to death. There's a simple rule to remember about low and bawdy humor: Whether it sounds like air escaping from a balloon or a tuba player's raucous glissando, one well-timed fart can bring down the house.  Unfortunately, 90 minutes of unrelenting gas just stinks up the place. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
I left the Roda Theatre feeling disappointed and oddly unfulfilled, sad that so much work had gone into producing something that died from overkill.  The following night I was confronted by a fearless performer for whom overkill is a mere starting point. Her one-woman show, 52 Man Pickup, is probably the lowest, grossest, down and dirty, fierce and filthy show I've seen in years. And it's fucking hilarious.

Not only was the audience in stitches throughout the entire 90 minutes of Desiree Burch's jaw-dropping show at the Brava Center for the Arts, this woman makes established female comics like Kathy Griffin, Margaret Cho, and Lisa Lampanelli seem timid, apologetic, and meek.

Burch likes to talk about sex. Not so much the romantic side of sex as the messy mechanical aspect of it,  the farcical revelations that occur during a bit of the old "slip and slide," and the character defects of the various men she has mounted and dismounted.

Using a deck of playing cards, Desiree manages to get through 52 unique and rowdy tales of lust, lechery, and occasional lesbianism, peppering the evening with jabs at Daves #1 through #9.

Each card reveals a rollicking story of sex with bartenders, pirates, and cheerleaders (as well as a New York City firefighter with an image of the World Trade Center's twin towers tattooed on his chest). Their length and girth become endless sources of feminist strength and mirth. What's amazing is how Burch's charismatic personality gets members of the audience to open up and share some of their most bizarre sex tales.

The contrast between Burch's no holds barred, guerrilla warfare approach to sexuality and A Doctor In Spite of Himself's calculated cuteness could not have been more shocking. One was genuine, brazen, and driven by the kind of raw theatrical energy that sends shivers up your spine. The other had been meticulously crafted using references to popular cultural markers without any real sense of ownership.  In her program note, Burch writes:
"If you take a moment -- tonight or otherwise -- to examine your own experience, you will likely find some truth in these 90 minutes that resonates with your own. If not, I both pity your lack of experience and envy your lack of disillusionment. Well done. You've stumped me. The point of creating this show and performing it in random bars and wonderful theaters across the globe is not to shock, impress, or even entertain people -- though it may wonderfully do all of this and more. The idea is really to engage people about things we all do but rarely ever speak of, and therefore, rarely ever evolve from. I want to talk about the secrets that gain power in the dark and shallow graves we bury them in. I want to take the power and stain away from my own secrets. It is my hope that a bit of dialogue can help to recover parts of our severed selves and keep us from compartmentalizing into quite a civilized generation of sociopaths. It is also my hope that, as we do this, the laughter can help us identify each other in the darkness.
We have so many great and wonderful works to take on together, you and I. It is far beyond time for us to come out of the indulgence of our shame and separation, which acts like a dense forest, and allows us to be the worst kind of beasts to one another. I hope that you find a friend tonight, whether it is one you'll meet for the first time, one you know what you'll draw closer to, or one in yourself that has been dying to talk to you. So many wonderful things can happen when we come together. All of the stories you will hear tonight are true. There is no need to ask me after the show if this is the case. What would be the point of talking about fake sex? That's what TV is for. Names have not been changed to protect anyone -- no one is innocent."
Desiree Burch in 52 Man Pickup

Whether you are sitting in the front row (staring up at Burch's huge breasts as they bulge over the top of her push-up girdle) or several rows back, doubled over in laughter at what she asks of the volunteers she drags up onto the stage, I can guarantee one thing: You will not be bored.  Nor will you be checking your watch.

On opening night of 52 Man Pickup, one lucky volunteer won a shiny new see-through dildo while another went home with a brand new female condom.

Desiree Burch offers the stand-up equivalent of having someone simultaneously holding some poppers under your nose while shoving a finger up your ass. She'll be performing 52-Man Pickup at the Brava Center through March 3 (click here to order tickets). As the old saying goes: "Be there or be square." Here's the trailer.

1 comment:

Isaac Byrne said...

Just found this review- cant say I have ever enjoyed a review of anything else I've directed as much as I did this.

After 4 years of working with Desiree we finally got our money quote: "....offers the stand-up equivalent of having someone simultaneously holding some poppers under your nose while shoving a finger up your ass"

Doesn't get much better than that. Thanks!