Remains Theatre

I might have liked The Plucky & Spunky Show a lot better if I hadn’t seen Frank Moore first. Frank Moore has cerebral palsy. He rides around in a wheelchair, his head and hands move spasmodically, and when he tries to talk the words come out as a series of incomprehensible whines and screeches.

So naturally he’s a performance artist.

I saw Moore’s show when he came to Club Lower Links in October. The evening was long, strange, and very trippy–picture a student pageant at the Jimi Hendrix Memorial School for the Disabled, circa 1971. I found myself squirming almost as soon as I walked in. There was Moore, facing us from his wheelchair, howling and gesticulating to music–his torso straining up against his seat belt; his hands wild; his tongue lolling out of his mouth; and Sonny & Cher on the box, singing what else but “Laugh at Me.”

Drinks were being served. The audience applauded after every appalling number. I was thoroughly upset: my sense of dignity was being assailed. Not my sense of my own dignity, but of Moore’s–my sense of the dignity of the handicapped. What amusement, what pleasure was there in seeing this unlucky man demonstrate his incapacity for us?

Then, whoosh, I saw how completely I’d missed the point. Or rather, how completely I’d fallen into it without seeing it. Moore wasn’t playing to anybody’s prejudices. Just the opposite: he was attacking them. Attacking them with his whole writhing, caterwauling being. His simple presence constituted a challenge to conventional notions of what a performer may and may not look like. And by extension, what roles disabled people may and may not assume. He was all wrong, and yet there he was: sitting center stage, rocking out–even turning sex symbol when his wife appeared, half-naked, to croon “I Got You Babe” with him.

I realized then that my solicitude was actually condescension: a healthy man’s attempt to put a handicapped man not only in his place but in his persona. I wasn’t really angry at the audience for demeaning Moore–the fact was that I was angry at Moore for playing against his assigned type.

The Plucky & Spunky Show offers similar insight–but in the form of a punch line rather than a revelation. Where Moore got in my face with his difference and defiance, Plucky & Spunky came at me with a big hug, a patient look, and an easy laugh. A comedy revue about the peculiar difficulties of the handicapped–written by wheelchair veterans Susan Nussbaum and Mike Ervin, and performed by a mixed ensemble of blind, deaf, paraplegic, and even tall actors–Plucky & Spunky pretends to a certain amount of wiseass irony; we’re supposed to take the title with a heavy dose of attitude. And yet the show’s overall tone actually expresses the pure essence of pluck and spunk. Nussbaum and Ervin are out to cajole us into enlightenment. They tend to teach by ingratiation.

Not that there aren’t darker modulations here and there. Nussbaum gives herself some rich, surprisingly sharp passages–as in the skit where a spilled order of shrimp in black bean sauce momentarily knocks the spirit out of a paraplegic woman. Or the one where Nussbaum and David Pasquesi play wheelchair-bound lovers debating their chances of maintaining a long-term relationship in a world of hostile architecture and patronizing strangers.

Then, too, there are some plain funny bits–plain funny loosely defined here as anything with Pasquesi in it. A Second City mainstage regular, Pasquesi brings a stunningly specific comic imagination to everything he does. As just a small for instance, there’s a scene where Pasquesi comes between a man and his irate, deaf wife: the wife signs the word “sorry” on Pasquesi’s chest and Pasquesi goes giggly from the feel of it. The tickle’s a minor detail, but it has an unexpectedly major effect, simultaneously grounding the scene in physical reality while making it fly as comedy.

Mostly, however, Plucky & Spunky goes for the warm and runny. The warm and runny and pat. An ongoing story about former poster girl Spunky and her search for identity ends with the requisite I’m-Just-Me song. Even the shrimp-and-bean-sauce tragedy closes on an up note. The revue format itself tends to defuse any dangerous interplay between show and audience, its familiarity breeding a complacency that’s never challenged. People with all their limbs and all their faculties can see The Plucky & Spunky Show and sympathize with its agenda without ever examining that agenda on a personal level. Wild Frank Moore would never permit that.