Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Party Of One/The Ox-Herder's Tale

Kinda got a good news/bad news thing going on today...

It's good to know there's balance in the universe, I suppose. I keep finding things I feel confident in putting in my Best of the Best section, but at the same time, it seems to be a landmark year for unapologetically bad theatre as well, to the point where it's almost tempting to keep a running Hall of Shame going for all the shit-ass work that I keep seeing.

The latest on the list is Noel Williams' Party Of One, which luckily enough closed on Monday night. It's a one-woman clown show, which is an instant draw for me thanks to the really inspiring lessons I've taken from the little bit of clown training and work that I have done. Unfortunately, I tend to forget that, much like the improv world, good clown work is hidden deep beneath a bunch of yahoos who throw on a red nose and expect people to automatically pony up some cash to listen to their jokes or attempts there at. Noel Williams is apparently a Pochinko trained clown, which I was unfamiliar with, but after some quick research, it would appear that the Pochinko technique is not laid out as 'talk really fast and move your hands a lot', so I'd question how much of the training stuck.

Williams has created a piece about love. The finding and losing of it, the uncomfortable points in between, the whole kit and caboodle. It's a piece begging to be filled with vulnerability, and there's no vulnerability like clown vulnerability. But instead, every human self-defense mechanism Williams would ideally be commenting on through reveal she ends up using as a performer as well. Not as much laughter as you expected? Repeat, repeat, repeat! And try it faster! Oh, and if you move really fast too, everyone will assume you're entertaining them! But it's not enough that Williams runs through every 'look at me' trick in the book (hint: it's a one-woman show, you don't have to get our attention, only keep it). This also happens to be a show with audience interaction! And it's the most one-sided audience interaction I've ever seen. There could have been two dozen hat stands sitting there instead of us and Williams would have treated them the same. If you ask an audience member a question, rhetorical or not, Yes it absolutely does matter how they respond. Choose the script over the reality at your own peril.

This was never better illustrated than during an utterly random religious interlude in which she shamed the audience for being uncomfortable around the idea of Christianity on stage. The idea of Christianity on stage being her repeating "Jesus Bible" over and over until it is 'funny' (a word losing its meaning more rapidly as the minutes tick by). 'Cept we weren't uncomfortable. A third of the audience was laughing with her and I can only assume the rest were, like me, trying to figure out how the hell she segued into this from a midgetized non-sequitur version of Gone With The Wind, a bit (and nothing more, believe me) that she also pulled out of an increasingly puzzling nowhere that was beginning to look startlingly close to stand-up comedy. But we weren't uncomfortable. I say that confidently because I don't remember the last time I've met someone who took offence at the utterance of the words 'Jesus Bible'. No commentary on them, just the words themselves -- it's the Not Even Trying technique of clowning. Williams' response? "JesusBibleJesusBibleJesusBibleJesusBible", laugh, and bewilderingly move on.

But I knew the show was dead, buried and rotting for me when she Williams chose to up and tackle my biggest dealbreaker: shitty music design. Keep in mind, this is a show with a sound design that consisted of nothing more than train noises in the first five minutes and an onstage fan that irritatingly remained on without being used for the last third of the show, providing a taunting, sleep-inducing white noise. And suddenly, ten or fifteen minutes from the end, Williams begins some sort of equally uninduced crypto-religious flying/death/love/heaven segment, and who fades in? Get ready for a ride on the Obvious Express: David Bowie. Space Oddity. Yes, she totally went there. And it wasn't even curtain music, which is an equally bad, but understandable choice. This was apparently just the one segment of the show that needed accompaniment -- you know, just in case the ball peen hammer she was using to drive the imagery into your head wasn't quite heavy enough.

Nothing. I have nothing good to say about this show. Her suitcases put in a decent performance. I suppose I didn't have an epiliptic fit at any point. Is that positive? It's about the best I can come up with.


Now, to redeem myself in the eyes of those who are faint of heart at negativity, a good show!

I've seen two shows by Blair Thomas & Co. in the last month or so, and they've got a helluva track record so far. The Ox-Herder's Tale revealed itself to me much the same way as Cabaret Of Desire. I'm not a big puppetry guy -- it's a fascinating art form and I'm in awe at those who do it well (as Blair Thomas as well as Co. do), but I tend to have an initial reaction (as I did with both Cabaret and Ox-Herder's) of questioning the purpose. When the goal is realism with the puppets, how is it any more than a parlor trick -- you certainly won't get more expression from a puppet than a human and only the best even approach equal amounts, so what drives the decision to use puppetry, other than a sense of Look What I Can Do? I understand Henson and the Muppets and other forms that bring the fantastical or otherwise unrealizable into the picture (it's also why I was a little quicker to get into the surreal Cabaret than the contemplative Ox-Herder's), but I have occasional difficulty with the reasoning behind having puppets do what humans could be doing just as well.

And yet, as a huge credit to Thomas, after 15-20 minutes, I'm completely hooked, at one point watching a puppet sit alone in the lotus position on stage with a mix of fear and desire that it's going to stand up by itself. The show revolves around an extended dance/movement piece between the bunrakued titular puppet and a stiltwalker dressed as an ox. A dance/movement piece that did to me for stilts what Cirque de Soleil did for the Wheel of Death, i.e. "I could totally do that! I wanna do that! Why am I not doing that?" And then, just as it seemed the show was going to go for a whole lotta spectacle with a little bit of meditative thematic content (which I would have been fine with), it sat down and went utterly Zen -- ending on a ten minute or so meditation on a sky blue to blood red back screen to the hypnotic improvised drumming of Hamid Drake and Michael Zerang. Depending on who you ask, it was either transcendent or torture. Count me among the former.


As I mentioned, tonight is SITI's Radio Macbeth at Court. As for this weekend, I'm DADAing up on Friday night (Come meet [g]nimbus, he hasn't been known to bite. Yet.) and then hitting Trap Door's The Unconquered on Saturday and TUTA's Romeo and Juliet on Sunday.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!


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