Monday, November 17, 2014

Funny Girls

From Fanny Brice, Mae West. Phyllis Diller, and Moms Mabley to Totie Fields, Joan Rivers, Lily Tomlin, and Marga Gomez, female comics have been tickling people's funny bones for a long, long time. Whether their comedy is warm and embracing (Ellen DeGeneres, Wanda Sykes, Judy Gold) or crude and brutal (Sarah Silverman, Kathy Griffin, Lisa Lampanelli), nobody doubts that the talent is out there.

Some comics begin their careers writing jokes for established performers; others get their start at open mic nights in comedy clubs. In almost every case, what helps a comic win over an audience is an authentic personality, a unique sense of humor, and the fierce determination to succeed.

One of the questions most frequently asked of established comedians is whether being funny derives from a natural instinct or something that can be learned. While some people might categorize that thought as a "nature or nurture" question, I suspect that true comedic talent has a lot to do with one's ability to observe life, absorb its oddities, and transform them into thoughts and images that (through one's personal powers of communication) can make people laugh.

Lousy material in the hands of a gifted comic has a chance. Good material in the hands of an inept performer is more likely to fail. That dilemma was the subject of charming film called Funny Bones (1995) that starred Oliver Platt, Jerry Lewis, and Leslie Caron.

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Originally from northern Minnesota, Allison Page's first play for the San Francisco Olympians Festival was 2013's The Golden Apple of Discord. An active member (as both a writer and performer) with San Francisco's sketch comedy troupe, Killing My Lobster, she has written dialogue for video game characters and is currently working on a full-length play entitled Hilarity.

Anyone who has seen Page in performance (or witnessed one of her scripts being performed) knows that her sense of humor is sharp and unlabored. In some instances, a simple sigh or look from Ms. Page can leave an audience howling with laughter. If Clara Bow was The "It" Girl, Allison Page could very well be The "It" Comic.  She's a natural.

Allison Page

Page's skill (as both writer and director) in setting up a comic situation and then letting it play out before an audience was on display during the reading of her new play, Cerberus or Hellhound, at the 2014 San Francisco Olympians Festival. According to to her promotional blurb:
"Six attractive 18 year olds fueled by teenage lust go camping in the woods and stumble across the river Styx, causing a three-headed monster to pursue them with bloody fervor. It’s The Breakfast Club meets The Cabin In The Woods meets a giant three-headed hellhound. Once they realize they’ve crossed the fabled river Styx and bloodthirsty Cerberus is hot on their trail, they scramble to get back to shore. Will Brunhilda finally lose her virginity? Does Jake still look cool in his leather jacket when he’s running for his life? Will Valerie allow her new perm to get wet in the river? Button up that letterman jacket -- it’s going to be a bumpy night."
Poster art by Ashley Ramos for Hellhound

In addition to Steven Westdahl's fearsome, growling performance as the three-headed dog, Cerberus, the characters in Page's giddy romp include three classic pairings:
  • Valerie (Laura Peterson) is a stereotypical cheerleader/Valley Girl who has lots of experience manipulating people into doing what she wants. She knows that flashing her tits will cause her boyfriend to follow her anywhere. Although others may have stronger intellects and a sense of responsibility, few can compete with Valerie's determination to be a bad girl.
  • Brad (Griffin Taylor) is the stereotypical combination of a muscular college jock, horny frat boy, and clueless douchebag. Brad has lots of brawn but not too much in the brains department.
Griffin Taylor appeared as Brad in Cerberus or Hellound
  • Brunhilda (Stacey Matthews-Winn) may be a dedicated member of the math team, but she is used to being pushed to the side by meaner and prettier girls.
  • Jake (George Coker) may be perpetually underappreciated by his peers, but has some solid moves.
George Coker is Jake in Cerberus or Hellhound
  • Pubert (Frankie G.) is the hypochondriac, bug-eyed party pooper with limited social skills who snores, can't live without skin lotion, and is easily terrified.
  • Poe (Amber Sommerfeld) is the stylish goth girl with dark desires and a twisted sense of humor who is thrilled to cross the river Styx and more than happy to embrace death.
Amber Sommerfeld appeared as Poe in Cerebrus or Hellhound

With a packed house eager to have a good time, Page's Cerberus or Hellhound delivered the goods in riotously grand fashion. I especially enjoyed the performances of Amber Sommerfield (Poe), Frankie G. (Pubert), Laura Peterson (Valerie) and Griffin Taylor (Brad).

Allison Page, Stuart Bousel, and Annie Paladino onstage at the
EXIT Theatre during the 2014 San Francisco Olympians Festival
(Photo by: Charles Lewis III) 

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I wish I had had as much fun at I Love Lucy Live On Stage, which recently had its Bay area premiere at the Curran Theatre. Unlike the easy goofiness of Cerebrus or Hellhound, this combination tribute/spoof of the beloved I Love Lucy show ranged from tedious to terrible; from embarrassing to execrable. Although plenty of people around me were laughing their heads off, like Queen Victoria, I was not amused.  Here's why.

The original version of I Love Lucy ran from October of 1951 to May of 1957. Like many Americans, I loved watching Lucille Ball make a fool of herself on television. She was a master clown whose trademark sounds and gestures made her an icon of American entertainment.

Ball's subsequent comedy shows, The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour (which ran from 1957 to 1960), The Lucy Show (which ran from 1962 to 1968), Here's Lucy (which ran from 1968 to 1974), and Life With Lucy (which only ran for one season in 1986) firmly cemented Ball's legacy as a comedy brand: the ditsy redhead who was always getting into trouble and could let loose with her familiar wail in moments of distress.

Euriamis Losada, Thea Brooks, Lori Hammel, and Kevin Remington
 in I Love Lucy Live on Stage (Photo by: Ed Krieger) 

There is, however, a huge difference between a uniquely gifted artist and the brand that is identified with her. As the producers of I Love Lucy Live On Stage explain:
"Our intention, first and foremost, was to honor the legend that is 'Lucy.' I Love Lucy Live On Stage had its beginnings way back in 2000, when we produced an exhibition show that traveled around the country at state and county fairs, malls and casinos called the I Love Lucy 50th Anniversary Experience. People walked through the world of Lucy, complete with photographs, memorabilia, video montages from the show and recreations of the sets.  When all was said and done, hundreds of thousands of people came out to see the exhibition and there was simply no way to deny it -- folks really do love Lucy!"
"From there, we set out to create not necessarily a storyline, but an experience for the audience. The idea is that when you walk into the theater, you are walking into 1952-- into the DesiLu Playhouse --and are part of the studio audience getting to see two episodes of I Love Lucy being filmed.  I Love Lucy Live On Stage is more than just the title of our show, it has proven to be a mindset. It’s a thought that is nearly spoken aloud by excited audience members as they enter the theatre and a feeling they take with them as they leave. Nearly 65 years after America chose their favorite redhead, this show has created a brand new way for people to 'Love Lucy.'" 
Euriamis Losada (Ricky Ricardo) and Thea Brooks (Lucy Ricardo)
in  I Love Lucy Live on Stage (Photo by: Justin Namon)

Tim Teeman's recent article for The Daily Beast entitled How Straight World Stole ‘Gay’: The Last Gasp of the ‘Lumbersexual’ examines how today's hipsters have been cannibalizing the assets of other subcultures and attempting to appropriate the spoils as their own. While watching I Love Lucy Live On Stage I had the strange feeling that someone was attempting to create an I Love Lucy app that could open up a brand new revenue stream. The app did a brilliant job of recreating the sets, scripts, and paraphernalia of I Love Lucy but lacked one critical element: Lucy's humanity.

Created by Rick Sparks (Director/Co-Adaptor/Musical Staging) and Kim Flagg (Co-Adaptor/Producer), with costumes designed by Shon LeBlanc and a unit set designed by Aaron Henderson to represent the DesiLu Studios, the supporting cast of I Love Lucy Live On Stage includes The Ricky Ricardo Orchestra from the Tropicana Nightclub and The Crystaltone Singers performing advertising jingles from the show's sponsors.

While some thought these elements were highly entertaining, I found them a bit forced. However, these performers could not hold a candle to the hyperactive performances by Thea Brooks (Lucy), Kevin Remington (Fred), and Lori Hammel (Ethel), who seemed to have so much adrenaline rushing through their systems that one couldn't help but wonder if there were extra cans of Red Bull waiting in the wings.

Euriamis Losada as Ricky Ricardo in I Love Lucy Live on Stage
(Photo by: Justin Namon)

This kind of frenzied overkill was in sharp contrast to the performance of Euriamis Losada, whose portrayal of Ricky Ricardo was infinitely more grounded, honest, and natural than the other performers onstage. When juxtaposed against Losada's easy masculine charm and level of comfort onstage, the performances by Brooks (a Lucy with no heart), Remington, and Hammel seemed all the more forced and labored.

Special mention should be made of Mark Christopher Tracy as the host of the DesiLu Playhouse; Denise Moses (who takes on an assortment of character roles), and Richard Strimer, whose performance as King Katt Walsh (who tries to give Lucy a crash course in how to dance the jitterbug) nearly steals the show. Here's the trailer:

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