Monday, September 21, 2009

A Tough Act To Follow

Those who sit behind the desk at auditions will readily confess that many applicants not only fail to make the grade, but lack a certain spark or unique quality that could set them apart from the competition. For many years, opera managers complained about an endless stream of "homogenized singers" who could sing very efficiently but lacked such important qualities as charisma, dramatic insight, or an innate sense of musicality.

It's not just about being able to sing all the notes. Musicianship, an ability to communicate the text of an aria, and one's capacity to engage an audience are important parts of any presentation. Otherwise, one could simply watch a video.

While attending performances at the 2009 San Francisco Fringe Festival, it was interesting to hear which shows were being recommended by volunteers and other members of the audience. At the top of the list was The Surprise, which I had not only enjoyed immensely, but felt stood head and shoulders above many of the other solo entries.

That one performer should be so exceptional, however, sets up a tough artistic standard that can be boiled down to the following statement: "Sure, he's got some good material there, but he's no Martin Dockery!" With that thought in mind, here's how some of the other solo performances impressed me.

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Alicia Dattner is an energetic and extremely enthusiastic performer. Her one-woman show, Eat, Pray, Laugh essentially details a nice Jewish girl's search for spiritual meaning during a three-week trip through India.

Alicia Dattner (Photo by: Robert Strong)

Although traveling to the opposite side of the world may have brought Dattner into contact with a lot of handsome, horny Hindu men sporting mustaches (in addition to the physical and cultural challenges of adjusting to India's rustic standards of plumbing), the more I listened to Alicia as she described her attempts to stay faithful to her boyfriend while finding enlightenment by fasting and chanting, the less I found myself caring about the storyteller directly in front of me or her story. What was lacking from her performance?
  • Certainly not personality (she's got plenty of that).
  • Certainly not physicality (an extremely limber performer, Dattner knows how to use her yoga training to elicit plenty of laughs).
  • Certainly not a story with a beginning, middle and end (young Jewish woman in search of deeper meaning in her life flies to India despite the fears and objections of her parents, meditates with handsome strangers, gets laid, and comes back home).
During the course of her show, Alicia impersonates laughing flower gurus, a hunky Swiss guy named Jan, a French yoga instructor, and describes what it is like to roam around India on the back of someone's motorcycle. There's lots of action, lots mosquitos, lots of soul-searching, and lots of shnooky Woody Allen-type shtick.

Many people in the audience ate it right up. What was missing for me, however, was a compelling reason to care.

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Mark Whitney has quite an interesting tale to tell. One of the few Fringe performers to come right out and admit that he's an ex-con, his story of how he began his professional career as a teenaged vacuum cleaner salesman and ended up in jail after a misguided loan from a small bank in Vermont (that was trying to jack up its assets before being acquired) went bad, is rife with conflict and irony.

In Fool For A Client, Whitney describes how his decision to represent himself in court led to a secondary career (and a favored position in prison) simply because, as someone who could read, he was able to help other inmates prepare their appeals for the criminal court system. His ability to devour material in his prison's law library led to a treasure trove of legal trivia that most judges and prosecutors had forgotten about.

Photo by: Joe Savage

Because they have had such a huge personal impact on his life, the legal conflicts Whitney describes in Fool For A Client are indeed quite compelling. Although Whitney has worked hard to memorize legal case law and memorialize critical dates in his progression from a wide-eyed teenager to a cynical parent and professional consultant, as he delineates the incredible trail which led him from one prison to another and all the way back to, of all things, vacuum cleaners, one problem with his presentation becomes glaringly obvious: He's not a particularly gifted performer.

On the night I caught Whitney's act, I found his body language to be fairly stiff, his delivery hampered by a slight lisp (or "liquid L") and his intense focus on the legal technicalities he had mastered oddly counterproductive. In the following clip, Whitney is much more animated than he was when I watched him perform:

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It's hard to find a way to describe Iris Schleuss's Suicide Me! which, at 25 minutes, was obviously the shortest show in this year's Fringe Festival. A German puppeteer working with a remarkably expressive puppet, Schleuss initially seems to be telling the story of a depressed teenager named Luna who has just received terrible grades on her report card.

Photo by: Torsten Wolber

However, when Luna [the puppet] finally succeeds after various attempts at committing suicide, her bloody triumph raises a confusing question. After unsuccessfully trying to slit her wrists and swallow pills, the puppet picks up a toy gun and shoots the puppeteer. As blood appears on Schleuss's forehead, one wonders if Luna [the puppet] is taking a stand against her nagging mother and the boyfriend who dumped her or whether she is subconsciously trying to release the puppeteer from her act.

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Finally, we come to Barry Smith's 60-minute multimedia presentation entitled Jesus In Montana: Adventures in a Doomsday Cult, which outlines his religious evolution from being raised in a strict, fire-and-brimstone Southern Baptist environment to dropping out, taking lots of acid, being introduced to the Bahá'í faith and spending some time as an overzealous disciple of what turns out to be an 80-year-old retired pedophilic chiropractor who is claiming to be Jesus Christ after his return to Earth.

I found Smith's narrative to be fairly interesting (partially because, as an atheist, I'm quite cynical about the role of religion in people's lives). It also revived memories of a time in my life, back in the early 1970s, when a friend tried -- rather unsuccessfully -- to get me interested in the teachings of the peaceful prophet, Bahá'u'lláh.

Smith, who has been performing Jesus In Montana since 2005, is obviously comfortable with the material, its internal rhythms, and his pacing of the show. Accompanied by a well-crafted and highly professional video presentation that demonstrates not only his progression from a wide-eyed toddler to an adolescent convinced that he just heard the voice of God tell him which shoe to put on his right foot, but documents his physical transformation from a squeaky clean Baptist to a devoted user of LSD, Smith never strays from the microphone.

Whether detailing the trials and tribulations of trying to hitchhike from Denver to Missoula or describing how (following an injury that caused temporary brain damage) a visit from a rival group of Jehovah's Witnesses made him realize that so much of what he had embraced as the truth of Christianity was, in fact, utter bullshit, Smith is an amiable performer who never gets too excited. His laid-back approach to performing (as well as his ability to rely on video for key parts of his act) have a peculiar side effect -- occasionally making it all too easy for Smith's audience to disengage from him as a performer. This eight-minute clip offers a solid taste of his style:

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