charming billy

February 23, 2010

Charm has its place, but in theater it is not something that particularly interests me. Charm is for cocktail parties and meeting one’s future in-laws. Charm wears thin rather quickly on stage. That said, Jonah Weston in The Devil and Billy Markham is a charming performer, truly. And Shel Silverstein’s epic poem is a charming piece of writing. Would that both were less charming and more unhinged. Not that I didn’t enjoy the time I spent with both at the Curious Comedy Club, but I would have enjoyed it much more had it been, say, 20 minutes of charm instead of an hour +. The material itself is mostly to blame. Ironically, Silverstein’s epic poem about the devil’s comeuppance, is actually less quirky and subversive than his children’s writings, given the subject matter. There are witty turns of phrase and tidbits of surprise, but for the most part, the extended poem kills time reaching for rhymes and juxtaposing celebrity villains with boring party entertainments. Yes, I chuckled, twice, but rhyming couplets (they probably weren’t couplets, but still) can be limiting and, as with Shakespeare, demand specific character and emotional investment to become engaging theater. This piece was done in NY (paired with a Mamet one-act) without much success and one can see why, it feels dated from the onset and encourages a sort of Burl Ives (tip of the hat) meets Garrison Keller (wink) reading that undermines any theatricality that might be mined from its limited scope. Performing at Curious Comedy doesn’t help – it isn’t a bar and it isn’t a theater and this in-between setting only emphasizes the production’s weaknesses (though given so blank a setting, an imaginative designer could have helped immensely). The stage is set symmetrically (yawn), Tom Waits is on the soundtrack, and, of course, at the given time, our performer sits at the edge of the stage to recount his story (even though half of the audience lose their view of him).  It’s all so generic and expected, there’s no spontaneity, no hint of danger. But it’s charming. This is theater you can bring mom and dad to: sweet and safe, with a beer back.

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