Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Successful Monologist: Nurture or Nature?

People often wonder if a person's comedic instincts are natural. And if not, can a person "learn" comedy? In some ways this is the performer's version of the nature versus nurture argument. Will instinct automatically outperform a carefully studied and meticulously learned craft?

Once, when I was visiting Houston Grand Opera, Scott Heumann and I got into a discussion about what it was like to sit through auditions for three days in a row. As the company's dramaturg, Scott (who had a great deal of influence on casting decisions) confessed that listening to a steady stream of singers tended to reveal one flaw after another. But when a singer auditioned who had the whole package, the shock of encountering the real thing was so strong that it was like the proverbial "breath of fresh air."

Earlier this week I had a chance to watch two people perform monologues down at the San Francisco Fringe Festival.
  • Each person performed in the Exit Studio (a 40-seat black box theatre). 
  • Each monologue was filled with material drawn from the performer's life experience.
  • Each time I sat in the first row, right next to the center aisle.
While the quality of writing and subject matter varied greatly between the two performers, the harsh reality was that the success of each show was determined within its first 60 seconds by the artist's level of confidence and personal charisma.
  • One performer began quite tentatively (albeit in character), while the other had his material down cold. 
  • One performer was obviously getting used to performing in front of a live audience. The other had obviously sprung from the womb with a set of fully outstretched jazz hands.
  • One show ran 60 minutes but felt like it lasted an hour and a half. The other ran for an hour and a half and felt as if it had flashed by in 60 minutes.
* * * * * * * * *
With a background in publishing, editing, and teaching, there's no doubt that Laura Wiley is deeply invested in the arts. As a graphic artist, she has developed three lines of greeting cards. As a writing coach, she helps clients with feedback and editing. As a musician, she has played flute in regional chamber music ensembles and the pit orchestras for musical theatre productions. Although she has worked with several regulars from The Marsh on developing her monologue, she's still getting her sea legs as an actor.

Wiley's one-woman show focuses on her experiences as a community college professor teaching courses in English literature and critical thinking. Confronted with a group of apathetic students (and crippled with low self-esteem), she experiences a panic attack and, even after being offered a vegan cookie, abruptly leaves the classroom. Panic! traces Wiley's adventures as she tries to decide whether or not to resume her teaching career.

Along the way, Wiley encounters Crazy Larry (a burned out educational colleague), Elvira (the feminist clerk at a local health food store), Rainbow (a yoga instructor whose personal life is miserably out of balance), and the ghost of her dead father. None of  these souls are able to pull her up from the depths of her depression.

Laura Wiley stars in Panic! (Photo courtesy of Laura Wiley)

From a dramatic standpoint, contrasting a middle-aged woman's panic attacks, crippling anxiety, despair, and disillusionment with the superficiality of those who are content to lead a platitude-driven life might seem rife with possibilities. Whether riffing on the newfound joys of Xanax (including the fact that the brand name is a palindrome) or over-the-counter herbal happy pills, Wiley's writing is quite strong.

While her narrative may seem to have great potential from a storytelling standpoint, the energy behind her performance doesn't really support the material.  Her lack of spontaneity makes one wish that her characters had been brought to life with a greater sense of life.  Her transitions between characters seem so clinically calculated that one can almost imagine a metronome ticking in the background. Simply stated: Wiley needs to spend more time getting these characters under her skin.

* * * * * * * * *
John Paul Karliak has no such problem. An accomplished performer (who was probably rehearsing kick turns at about six months' gestation), his one-man show is an absolute delight. With a personal history filled with wonderful material, Donna Madonna's year of workshops is over. As directed by Tiger Reel & Matthew Craig (with musical direction by Billy Thompson & DJ ChocliXxX), this show is ready to hit the road with stops along the K-Y circuit (Fire Island, Atlantis Cruises, and Palm Springs) before heading to the Big Apple for an extended run.

John Paul Karliak in Donna Madonna
Photos by: Jason (Woei-Ping) Chen

Just like Vice President Joe Biden, Bill O'Reilly, and Karen Ann Quinlan, Karliak began his life journey in Scranton, Pennsylvania. But politics had no appeal for someone who, by age six, was channeling Carol Channing in his one-man living room shows and learning that the two words which would define his life were "gay" and "adopted." As a young boy with an extremely fertile imagination (his description of wearing his Spice Girl outfit under a Darth Vader costume one Halloween is priceless), John's biggest desire was to become the perfect son.

John Paul Karliak in Donna Madonna
Photos by: Jason (Woei-Ping) Chen

Although his Italian-Catholic mother (who bore a strange resemblance to a butternut squash-shaped Donna Reed) loved him unconditionally, once Karliak learned that he was adopted he knew there were more mysteries from his past to solve. His dreams of finding a career, a house, and a husband with a British accent would have to wait. So would his memories of the hunky jock he lusted after during church lockdowns.

College brought plenty of new friendships and a more clearly focused desire to become an actor.  But when Karliak settled in Los Angeles, he was finally able to make contact with his birth mother. At their first nervous meeting at a Starbucks, she turned out to be absolutely fabulous!  Not quite Madonna (but hardly Patsy Stone), she'd become a fashion writer married to a British pop star.

Even as he describes the joy of playing the Prince in a production of the Stephen Sondheim musical, Into The Woods (while carrying on an intense affair with the actor playing the Baker), the audience senses that his late-year romance is bound to hit the skids. When it does, Karliak must decide whether to turn to his adoptive mother or his biological mother for emotional support.

John Paul Karliak in Donna Madonna
Photos by: Jason (Woei-Ping) Chen

Punctuating his narrative with hilarious references to popular moments from musical comedy, Karliak owns the stage with a combination of his winning personality and solid craft.  From the show's very first moments, he had the audience eating out of his hand. This is a performer who loves performing and is completely at ease onstage.

Karliak's intelligent and stageworthy script is filled with zingers (one of these days someone will have to take over for Bruce Vilanch) as well as some genuinely bittersweet moments. But the underlying tenor of his show is that he's there to have fun, he wants his audience to have fun, and he wants an adoption-oriented charity (in this case The Kinship Center) to benefit financially from the proceeds of his show.

John Paul Karliak in Donna Madonna
Photos by: Jason (Woei-Ping) Chen

For all those gay men who felt alienated and withdrawn in their youth (or may have been thrown out of their family homes for being gay), Karliak's story is one of mirth since birth. This is the tale of a young man who quickly realizes that he's gay, knows that he has way too much creativity to remain in Scranton, and learns that he has always had the full support and devotion of the folks who raised him.

As Donna (his adoptive mother) and Madonna (his birth mother) are finally brought together at the Huntington Gardens in Pasadena, Karliak brings his backstory full circle with a delightful ending for his monologue. Donna Madonna and its star are equally "pretty and witty and gay." Here's the trailer:


Laura W. said...

Dear Mr. Heymont,
Please do me a favor and refrain from attending any of my jazz gigs. I can't afford the xanax.--L. Wiley

paprikati said...

Mr. Heymont,
I think your comentary on Laura Wiley's show was way off mark. I saw it and found her characters completely believable and "lived in."