Monday, March 22, 2010

Physical Comedy in the 21st Century: Legs & All

[post 087]

Right before my trip to Barcelona, I got a chance to catch Legs & All, a charming and inventive physical comedy piece, first in a short preview at the next-to-last installment of the New York Downtown Clown Monthly Revue, and then in its full-length incarnation at the Frigid New York Festival. It was inventive enough to get me thinking again about the new and innovative paths physical comedy might follow in this post-post-modern-pre-apocalypse world of ours.

I'll come back to Legs & All in a bit, but first some thinking out loud...

When I first launched the blog feature Physical Comedy in the 21st Century, I had only the vaguest idea what I was talking about. I knew I wanted to highlight work that wasn't just funny, but that took physical comedy in new directions — conceptual, political, whatever...

What I was getting at is that all art forms change over time, often inspired by visionary artists who break the mold and demonstrate a new way of seeing. In the visual arts, just think of all the isms: impressionism, cubism, expressionism, dadaism, surrealism, futurism, abstract expressionism, pop art-ism, post-modernism, etc.

Physical comedy is, however, a very traditional — one might even say conservative — art form. Not only are many character types and gags traceable to antiquity, but these same characters and gags show up spontaneously in isolated indigenous cultures throughout the world and throughout history, proving (at least to me) that this stuff is ingrained in our collective DNA.

But while the deep truth underlying physical comedy — the realization that "we're all bozos on this bus" (Firesign Theatre) — remains a vérité eternelle, the new shapes physical comedy has taken over the past few decades are refreshingly varied. Think of Mummenschanz and Pilobolus and Momix. Think of much of the innovative work that gets labeled New Vaudeville or Clown-Theatre or Nouveau Cirque. Or try this: compare Grock's full-length clown entrée with Bill Irwin's decidedly post-modern Regard of Flight; many parallels and yet worlds apart. The bottom line may always be laughter, but what you're laughing at and how and when you get those laughs are another matter.

Hypothesis: Physical comedy very much needs to reflect its era, to move with the times.

...but before you start thinking I'm about to trash the tried and true, some background as to where I'm coming from....

Back in my graduate school days at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, I worked as an assistant editor at TDR (The Drama Review), then under the guidance of Michael Kirby, chair of the Drama Department, author of Happenings, and strong advocate for avant-garde theatre. I was turned on by all the new stuff going on in the New York theatre scene, but turned off by any arguments that assumed that the new was superior just because it was new. I am, truth be told, a fan of old-fashioned storytelling. I can happily devour a 19th-century novel or a contemporary page-turner by Richard Russo or Richard Price, by Anne Tyler or Zadie Smith, but I never did make it through a Robbe-Grillet nouveau roman. I was, however, struck by Michael's frequent use of the word significant to describe certain theatrical productions. Significant as in influential, which is not necessarily the same thing as good, better, or best. Significant as in, gee, I didn't know you could do it that way. Avant-garde literally means advance guard, or vanguard, those who go ahead and forge new paths.

Some axioms:

• When it comes to comedy, it's hard to be influential if you're not funny, so the work has to be accessible enough to grab and hold audiences, but it doesn't have to be THE BEST THING EVER.

• Simply being different or new is not the same as being significant. Anyone can be different — think of all the work you see today in music and theatre and film that is done just for the shock value — but that doesn't make it significant.

• New directions and different styles are not necessarily in competition with one another. It's okay to like them all. No art form and no performance piece has a copyright on the shining truth.

Physical comedy seems to be heading in a lot of new directions these days. Here are some I've noticed:

1. Combined with technology.
If you haven't seen my first post in this series on the work of Circoripopolo yet, check it out; you're in for a treat. Too often video editing is used as a shortcut to con us into believing an actor has performed some amazing feat, but the possibilities of creating comedy by combining technology with legitimate physical comedy chops are enormous. A popular example these days would be all the shadow pieces done by Momix and Pilobolus. The technology is in the lighting, but the movement is authentic.

2. In Real-life Settings.

The audience's role in comedy is usually well-defined. Safe in our seats, we're given the privilege of feeling superior to the characters onstage. We know stuff they don't know, we're one step ahead of them. Ideally we'll recognize our own humanity in their predicament, but it's not a requirement. More and more, however, you see performers creating public events that deny spectators their lofty perch and play with the audience's ability to tell what is or isn't real. Improv Everywhere (motto: "We Cause Scenes") is famous for such happenings as its annual and global No Pants Subway Ride, its Frozen Grand Central, and its Spontaneous Musicals. Their mission is to "cause scenes of chaos and joy in public places." For another example, check out my post on Dance in the Central Station of Antwerp. And of course much political theatre does the same thing: check out the underwater Maldives cabinet meeting in my post on the Copenhagen climate summit.

3. As a Visual Theatre Component
Traditional comedy, be it physical or stand-up, usually follows tried-and-true formulas to build toward surefire "punchlines," and the seasoned comedian will have a good sense of where the routine's small laughs and big laughs are to be found. Lenny Bruce once famously said that “the role of a comedian is to make the audience laugh, at a minimum of once every fifteen seconds; I'm not a comedian, I'm Lenny Bruce.” Bruce had a comic perspective on society, and it was this perspective that made him who he was; the individual jokes, not so much.

Likewise, there are many visual theatre pieces that draw heavily upon the vocabulary of physical comedy without aspiring to non-stop belly laughs. Again, watch a comedic piece by Pilobolus or Momix and the smiles and laughs will be less structured, less predictable, even to the trained eye. We will probably laugh less — after all, this is dance, not clowning — but still be immersed in the whimsy and overall humor of the alternate reality they've created. Likewise, many of the nouveau cirque productions I've seen have contained exquisite moments of physical comedy, though overall you would not describe these productions as comedies.

I have to think about this some more — hey, this is a blog, not a book — but meanwhile back to the show....

Legs & All

Legs & All is a 50-minute piece created and performed by Summer Shapiro and Peter Musante, who once upon a time were roommates as undergrads at UCLA. Shapiro is a San Francisco Clown Conservatory graduate and Climate Theater resident artist, and Musante a member of the current New York cast of Blue Man Group, amongst other impressive credits.

Their publicity describes the show as "a magical look at the mundane," which reminds me of a piece of sage Moni Yakim advice: "Don't do something ordinary with the extraordinary; do something extraordinary with the ordinary." It's a clown show, but not in the traditional sense. As Shapiro comments in the interview below, "I like clowning that’s more realistic, even though what I do I’m not quite sure if you’d call it realistic or not. Things that are not 'Hey I’m a clown!' More like 'I’m an exaggerated human being.'”

And one more quote from her web site: "Summer looks to create orchestrated mishaps, controlled chaos and a playful electricity of risky humanity on stage."

It's not a total cop-out to describe this show as indescribable. Yes, it's a take on the standard boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl story, only the man is in an attic, the girl in a box, and their relationship centers around a pink rubber ball. They circle each other with various flirtation games, and eventually get transported to a world that defies gravity; no, this photo is not an aerial shot. Their world is surreal, which is to say it has its own beautiful logic.

Well, it's late, I've had too much wine, so why not let someone else describe it better than I can. Okay, better than I could even without the wine. Here's Bonny Prince Billy on the Cultural Capitol blog:

Romantic love, the kind all the movies are about, often produces the same vertiginous feeling, as if the room you are in is about to be suddenly and without warning tipped on its side, and you and the charming person you are with might be literally thrown together into all kinds of awkward, unexpected physical intimacies. Poets have used anthologies full of metaphors to explain this effect: love is magic, transforming a skinny, awkward duckling into a graceful swan; love is a hallucinogenic drug that can give you angelic (or demonic) visions; ultimately, love is the feeling of flying, and the attendant fear, complete with sweaty palms, a queasy stomach, and the desire to squeeze your eyes tightly shut, so you can’t see what a predicament you’re in.

Summer Shapiro and Peter Musante have taken the words out of these metaphors to re-articulate them with a purely physical vocabulary in Legs and All. Their wonderful hour-long play (in my opinion, the best of the festival) is a kinetic poem about the space we share with our desires, the space taken up by the desires of others, and the uncomfortably delicious vertigo one feels when your personal space crashes into someone else’s.

Love’s sweet confusion commences when a recorded voice, deep and seductive, mumbles and purrs something in pseudo-French gibberish. The lights come up on a woman, standing in a box, rotating in a circle and staring into space, like a specimen on display in a replicant boutique. The lights go down and come up again on a man in the same situation. The gibberish French pretends it’s the narrator of a New Wave movie and implies that these are the two who are going to fall all over each other while they fall in love.

Their story is particularly touching because both characters are so awkward. The romantic axis on which many love stories turn – the strong man and the ethereal woman – is wonderfully inverted. The man is shy, a collector of trifles, a little squeamish, and definitely hemmed in by timidity. The woman, on the other hand, is palpably physical, almost to the point that her head (the place of thinking and feeling) is alienated from her overpowering corporeality. Her opening scene describes the strangeness of the body, like a scene from Sartre’s Nausea, or a teenager’s horror on finding hair growing where no sane person would grow hair. In the scene her hand appears out of a giant blue box to do a sexy dance routine. Ms. Hand is joined by the another hand who appears to have three legs, and then morphs into a quadruped. Finally the woman’s head pops up to take a look at the goings on, and in a fit of anger Head bites the naughty Hand and gives it a death shake – until she realizes it’s connected.

After the pair negotiate their personal space, they start to move around in each other’s shared space, and that’s when things go topsy-turvy. The picture at the top of the post was not taken by a photographer hanging from the rafters. Rather, the man and the woman fall to the left in order to have a romantic picnic. The visual metaphor is so charming you can’t help but get hot and cold running blushes and chills. The woman continues to be uncomfortably physical, and the man continues to be freaked out, like someone with OCD negotiating the subway and realizing they just ran out of hand sanitizer. This situation morphs through several situations until the two get comfortable with each other and climb into a big blue box of shared, intimate space.

Words don’t do it justice, and I must resist the urge to read Ms. Shapiro and Mr. Musant’s every gesture! There are so many tasty ones, so many hilarious moments, if I took the time to relate them all we’d be here until next week. Suffice it to say that Ms. Shapiro and Mr. Musante both have strong physical theater chops.... Ms. Shapiro has the most expressive face that she uses to maximum comedic effect, and Mr. Musante is a picture of grace, even when he’s falling on his face.

Nice writing!

Here's an interview of Peter & Summer by Christopher Lueck, mastermind of the New York Downtown Clown Monthly Revue, produced by Jim Moore, mastermind of the very cool Vaude Visuals blog.

As usual, I don't think you can truly appreciate the show from the promo videos, but here they are anyway. This first one is short, all of 36 seconds:

And here's an eight-and-a-half minute demo reel:

And some links for you:
Summer Shapiro web site
The full Cultural Capitol review
More Jim Moore photos
Scallyway & Vagabond review review

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