at Synergy Center
THEATRE OF THE BIZARRE
at the Elbo Room
Nothing better proves actor Edmund Kean’s deathbed quip “Dying is easy, comedy is hard” than Synergy Theatre’s production of Marc Harshbarger’s abysmally written, nearly laughless “comedy” Discussing George. For what seems like forever this five-member cast dies and dies again, repeating Harshbarger’s lame jokes and spinning out his silly, unbelievable story about a pair of sisters (Susan and Claire; one’s single, one’s married, both are pregnant, and neither is sure who the lucky father is) and a pair of identical twin brothers (Garth, a psychiatrist, and George, who is married to Susan, but who couldn’t be the father of her child because they have yet to consummate their marriage).
All of this stimulates lots and lots and lots of talk–about Susan, about George, about pregnancy–most of it straining desperately to be funny and falling far short. During the course of the play it’s revealed that George is a hermaphrodite and pregnant too (yes, he did what many of us have been told to do at one time or another). This stimulates lots more talk, none of it funnier than the earlier talk, and none of it about the fact that it is impossible for a hermaphrodite to have a genetically identical twin brother who is not a hermaphrodite.
What Harshbarger is trying for, I think, is kind of an absurdist satire on contemporary American mores. What he has achieved seems more like the botched pilot for a bad TV sitcom full of stereotypes (the yuppie, the wimp, our mildly befuddled but lovable heroine), none of whom is any smarter than your average TV viewer.
The problem is that Harshbarger doesn’t have much to say about the hot and heavy aspects of sexuality and sexual identity beyond mainstream America’s increasingly benumbed reaction of “that’s weird.” The only time Harshbarger even comes close to bringing these dangerous topics into the open is when he takes special pains to explain that George definitely impregnated himself–George may be a hermaphrodite, but he’s not gay. Harshbarger even goes so far as to have George utter the incredibly insensitive line “Hey, don’t get personal–I’m not one of them” when he’s asked who, um, knocked him up.
Not that Harshbarger should take all the blame for this tedious little play. Director Diane M. Honeyman must have had a hand in making this production what it is–though it’s hard to tell whether the actors’ inhibited interpretations of the material are the result of misdirection or lack of talent.
I suspect that these actors are capable of much more. For instance, Ariel Brenner, who plays Susan, did some fine work in Blind Parrot’s production of Vaclav Havel’s Largo Desolato. Yet in this play all she’s allowed to do is schlepp her way through the story, blinking her doe eyes as she looks alternately helpless, confused, and put-upon by a world not of her own making.
Armando Von Schtuppenvald and Pepe, the two emcees of the Theatre of the Bizarre cabaret show at the Elbo Room, also seem quite confused and put-upon by a world not of their own making. Happily, they are in a position to do something about it. Or at least, in the great cabaret tradition, spend a little time grousing about it.
The bad news is that most of the participants in Armando and Pepe’s cabaret seem not much more aware of the world outside their TV sets than Marc Harshbarger. How else to explain the surfeit of TV references, including a TV commercial parody, a poet who jokingly admits to basing his “personal philosophy” on Captain Binghamton’s tendency to whine “Why? Why, McHale? Why? Why?” on McHale’s Navy, and a beatnik bongo player who improvises from famous TV theme songs? This at a time when, to paraphrase a recent comment by Aaron Freeman, the crazed pace of world events makes it easy for topical comedians to come up with material.
The good news is that even if the Theatre of the Bizarre never does get around to providing the sort of smart, stinging satire it should, its cabaret is at least diverting, energetic, and more fun than not. This is not to say that Steve Ginensky as Von Schtuppenvald and Jim Garner as Pepe (both dressed all in black, complete with dark glasses and black Left Bank berets) don’t try their darnedest to bring a little upper-middlebrow humor to the show.
Garner begins the show by singing in a low conspiratorial voice–and in garbled, incorrect German–what translates roughly as “Do you know the muffin man, the muffin man, the muffin man?” Later in the show he tried his hand at commenting on the NEA controversy by quipping, “Who’s to say that a bullwhip up a man’s ass isn’t art?” and then dropping a plastic figure of Popeye’s friend Wimpy (representing Senator Jesse Helms) into a glass of what was supposed to be urine.
However, the most enthusiastically received bits are all solidly middlebrow–Pat Byrnes’s repeated gag about a jilted singer too enraged to finish singing “Embraceable You,” folksinger Billius’s lyrics sung to the Bonanza theme, and Mark Niestadt’s klutzy vaudevillian send-up of people who don’t go to see ballet but think they know what ballet is like.
One act by Jim U-Boat, who bills himself as the “poet laureate of Calumet City,” dives down into the lowest of lowbrow humor when he muses, “Why do some turds float and some turds sink?” (That joke made me yearn for Rob Riley’s Cabaret Rebob of two summers ago, which never stooped so low for a laugh.) Even in Chicago cabaret comedy used to be made of much sterner stuff.
All in all, however, this is an evening’s worth of diverting, amusing–if rather toothless–comedy. But even toothless comedy is preferable to an evening’s worth of dead jokes and dying comic actors.