Monday, May 21, 2012

Not All Solo Acts Are Created Equal

Guilt: A Love Story (a comedy of terrors)
The Parker Playhouse, Fort Lauderdale
May 19, 2012
This one is harder to write about because I didn’t especially enjoy it. But for its shortcomings, it might actually be as educational (or even more so) than the Lily Tomlin show or Old Jews Telling Jokes.

John Fugelsang bills himself as a political comedian. He is a radio personality (I was not aware of him before this show), a cabaret performer, comic, and actor in regional theatre. He is apparently a regular on cable news programs (MSNBC, FOX, CNN, HLN, etc.). So, he was in town, it was a one person show, I felt compelled to check him out.

Fugelsang opened (to about 200 people in a room that seats 1200) by saying that one person shows are difficult and often terrible because the performer has a political agenda and gets preachy or has a captive audience and uses them as group therapy to work out the performer’s own issues. He then (jokingly?) said, “Tonight’s show is all of that!” And, it was.

The rest of the show then was a personal story about his Catholic upbringing and his feelings about organized religion and his relationship with his mother and his relationship with his wife. For most of us, our introduction to this man was to hear his life story. Honestly, it wasn’t a great way to spend an hour and 45 minutes of non-intermission, rainy weather theatre on a Saturday night.

His anger at the Catholic church was justified, but not necessarily entertaining or even interesting. His story of how his parents met was compelling…his father was a Catholic Brother/history teacher and his mother a Catholic nun/nurse who met and it was love at first sight, but because of their vows they didn’t speak of it for 10 years. The dad finally revealed his feelings of unrequited love and they left their orders and got married and had children, John being the first. So, he was the first child born after they broke their promise to the God of their understanding to be celibate for the rest of their lives. Apparently, that bit of info was used in unhealthy ways against John in his upbringing.

He went on to tell of how his mother guilted him into marrying his lover of 11 years, how his father outlived a prognosis by 5 years because of an experimental procedure in Asia, a time he was nearly arrested for carrying drugs in the airport (marijuana for a sick friend), and about a time he debated racist David Duke on television.

It might have made a better essay or book than a performance. Or, if he had some relationship to the audience, his personal story might have been of more interest. If he was performing in a night club with regular customers, in a church where he had a relationship to the congregation, or if he was more famous (from being on a television sit-com perhaps) then the fictive relationship that exists between star and adoring public would have made his story more compelling, but as it was, it really did seem as if a few of us came out in the rain to hear a stranger tell about how the church had scarred him, how his mother used guilt as a weapon (how incredibly not unique!), and how he had survived some adventures with racists, airport security, and shot gun weddings.

I’ve seen autobiographical performances that were spell-binding, but again, that was because I felt I knew the performer in some way. S/he was part of my community speaking from as well as to the community, or s/he had a special interest in LBGT people or some group to which I claimed membership, or s/he had come into my living room time and again via television (or otherwise into my life through film, literature, radio, or theatre), and so an imaginary bond existed before the performance, or the story itself was at least partly fictional.

For example, when Phyllis Diller would tell stories about her fictive husband “Fang” that bit was often hilarious. But she created a world that invited the audience to be part of it, and as Fang was part of her regular shtick, to hear Diller perform (for many years at least) was to want to hear about Fang (Totie Fields did that with her real life husband who became part of her act, and Bette Midler did it with her “Soph” character based on the stage persona of Sophie Tucker, and Lily Tomlin did recently by weaving personal stories among the skits she created with fictional characters). To tell one’s own story, there must be a connection, I think, and if one does not exist, one must be made before the audience is likely to care about the performer’s plight.

In his book, Getting Your Solo Act Together[1], Michael Kearns gives some Dos and Don’ts of solo performance, and they include:

Don’t write a solo show based on your life as a model.
Do consider a dramaturg or a good writing class.
Do learn the art of self-editing.
Don’t stay on stage more than seventy minutes (pp. 66-67).

After seeing a 105 minute show completely about the life of a man I had never heard of before the show, I now see the wisdom of Kearns’ counsel!

[1] Kearns, Michael. Getting Your Solo Act Together. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1997.


Amy said...

I'm glad to get your review on the show. Eh. I feel funny about having egged you on to go to this. Next time I'm in south Florida, I'll buy you and Robert drinks.

Durrell said...

Live theatre, always worth the time, even when it doesn't appeal to a critical audience memeber.

It was a rainy, dreary night in a venue 6 times larger than the actual audience...that might have had a negative impact on the mood and reception.

There was plenty of laughter; for all i know, everyone loved every minute of it (save me, and even at that I didn't have a miserable time, and i couldn't have judged without seeing it, so i had to see it).

I'm studying solo performance right now, so all such performances, those that inspire and those that don't, all serve a purpose.

And drinks are always in order!