Wednesday, May 6, 2015

I Have A Song To Sing, O!

Storytelling is a powerful art form, perhaps as old as man. Whether it serves as the core of an oral tradition by which members of a Pacific island culture pass their tribal history from one generation to another or is merely used to lull a restless child to sleep, the act of spinning a narrative to a captive audience is what good theatre is all about.

In recent years, the monologue has become a favorite format for solo performers. Inspired by their own adventures, some write their own material and seek the assistance of a director who can help them prune the text and show them how to transition from one scene to another. For others, the monologue offers a chance to use numerous voices to portray different characters.

Bay area audiences have frequently basked in the talent of such gifted monologists as Dan Hoyle, Ann Randolph, Charlie Varon, Brian Copeland, and Mike Daisey. While these artists are at the top of their game, younger talents are always trying to hone their craft and make a name for themselves.

Often less sure of themselves (and frequently working with weaker material), aspiring monologists sometimes work twice as hard to nail certain dramatic moments instead of letting their words sail out into the audience on their own. In April, Bay area audiences had a chance to witness two monologists perform.
  • One is fairly new to the art form, with a puppy-like well of energy. 
  • The other is a veteran who, having spent years as a professional clown, has a formidable arsenal of theatrical tools at his disposal.
  • One left audiences wondering where he might be in a few years. 
  • The other left audiences in awe of his craft, insight, and dramatic acuity.
  • Both artists left their audiences wondering whether truth is stranger than fiction or if fiction delivers a stronger take on truth.

* * * * * * * * *
A prolific writer, director, and producer, Ben Rimalower is the kind of monologist whose material is largely autobiographical. Having grown up in a hugely dysfunctional family (his father was an OBGYN doctor who, in addition to making the rounds of expectant mothers who had been admitted to the hospital, was making the rounds of the Los Angeles gay scene as an enthusiastic bottom), Rimalower graduated from UC-Berkeley's Theatre Arts program before heading to New York.

Among his numerous theatrical exploits, Rimalower scored strongly off-Broadway with two intensely autobiographical monologues: Patti Issues and Bad With Money. Last month he brought both shows to San Francisco's Oasis, where (at least on Monday night) he played to meager audiences.

Although there are plenty of Patti LuPone fans in San Francisco, few of them attended Rimalower's performance, which captured the frenzied infatuation and starstruck wonder of a devout fan as well as the kind of desperate neediness which is contagious throughout show business. Whereas the above clips show Rimalower entertaining New York audiences (who are very much with him every step of the way), in San Francisco he could have benefited from a much larger, drunker, and more obsessive audience that was intimately in touch with "The Legend of La Lupone." What I found particularly interesting was how Patti Issues compared to Buyer & Cellar.
  • Both shows feature ardent fans worshipping at the feet of a show business diva
  • Both shows offer audiences an "inside look" at what it's like to interact with a personal idol.
  • Both shows feature gay men who arrive on the scene with a shitload of emotional baggage
  • However, when push comes to shove, the Jonathan Tolins play boasts much better writing, pacing, and enough emotional distance to land its laughs more securely.
Rimalower's second monologue, Bad With Money, lacks the fawning star focus of Patti Issues but deals with a much more insidious problem -- the inability of some people to understand the problems they have managing money and the deep trouble such problems can bring. Denial may not be a river in Egypt, but it is a strong factor in Rimalower's progression from manipulating his parents and tricks to becoming blithely adept at credit card fraud.  As a recovering alcoholic and drug abuser, it seems as if Rimalower's addictive personality can exert its influence on other areas of his life.

While Ben's tales of learning how to turn tricks in San Francisco may have a strong titillation factor (especially for those outside the Bay area who view San Francisco as a cesspool of hedonism), the sad truth is that his story is hardly new. Many a young man has ended up selling his body on Polk Street, in the Castro, or on Craigslist for cash, drugs, or shelter.

Despite the strength of his writing, there's a curious hole in Rimalower's narrative that, in an odd way, reminded me of the time I had to tell a close friend that his lover's problems (aging alcoholic and super-butch leather daddy suddenly discovers that he's a bottom) were as old as the hills of San Francisco and quite boring to anyone who had heard similar stories before.

It could be that, taken out of his comfort zone in New York's theatre circles, Rimalower's monologues lose some punch in other markets. It could also be that, in his rush to capitalize on his misadventures, Ben seems to display little if any consciousness or remorse about his manipulative hijinks with other people's money. I suspect there's another clue to be found in the look of his website which (although well-written) has been designed with colors assigned to background and text that make it almost impossible to read.

* * * * * * * * *
Before discussing Lear's Shadow, a new monologue by Geoff Hoyle which recently premiered at The Marsh, some words of advice are warranted.
  • For those who are totally unfamiliar with King Lear (often hailed as Shakespeare's greatest tragedy), there is no need to worry about not knowing the original text. You will be roundly entertained.
  • For those who have some amount of familiarity with the original text (or have seen King Lear performed onstage), your previous experiences will lead to a greater depth of appreciation for Hoyle's complex and multi-layered performance.
  • For those who have taken delight in reading Christopher Moore's comic novel, Fool, watching an actor deliver another take on the Lear household's misfortunes from the perspective of the doddering old King's loyal Fool will be a fascinating experience.
Geoff Hoyle performs Lear's Shadow (Photo by: David Ford)

A long-time member of The Pickle Family Circus, Hoyle employs lots of theatrical tricks as he tells the story of how Lear's Fool must audition for a new job now that all the members of his employer's family are deceased. Though Hoyle may resort to playing his fiddle with cunning glee (or breaking an egg while performing a magic trick), his Fool is a broken man whose loyalty over 47 long years of service to a royal family has often been rewarded with little more than physical abuse.

That doesn't mean that Hoyle's Fool is a genuine fool. Like many court jesters, the Fool was the only person who could safely speak truth to royal power. In Lear's case, however, the Fool was powerless to deal with his employer's raging ego and delusions of grandeur. As the Fool describes his early interactions with Lear's daughters as he tried to teach them about the nature of true love, one sees the horrifying results that will bear fruit when a mentally feeble patriarch demands to know how much Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia truly love him.

Geoff Hoyle performs Lear's Shadow (Photo by: David Ford)

Working with his long-time collaborator, David Ford, Hoyle has skillfully woven Shakespeare's text into his own treatment of the Fool, giving Lear's Shadow the kind of depth one might not normally expect to find in a monologue. Although one often reads about how gifted clowns can be some of the most perceptive tragedians, in Hoyle's case the proof of that theorem is mind-boggling.

Not only does Geoff Hoyle become a one-man sound machine re-enacting the ferocious storm that confuses and terrifies the demented Lear as he wanders about the heath, in the moments when Hoyle inhabits the King's body and speaks Shakespeare's lines one gets an eerie sense of the power so cruelly denied to talented clowns who are never given a chance to portray the theatre's most tragic characters.

Performances of Lear's Shadow continue at The Marsh in San Francisco through May 30 (click here to order tickets). See it for Geoff Hoyle's towering performance and expect to come away with a much greater understanding of filial love, unreasonable parental expectations, and a profound family tragedy.

No comments: