Friday, March 23, 2007

Two One-man Shows - Cromoli Brothers & Bigger than Jesus

Rick Miller in Bigger Than Jesus []
Photo: Beth Kates

In the past week I have seen two very different one-man shows, Theatre Skam's The Amazing and Impermeable Cromoli Brothers: The Best of the Cromoli Brothers and the Belfry Theatre's Bigger Than Jesus (a Wyrd Productions/Necessary Angel Theatre co-production). Seeing two solo shows so closely together leads me to consider the phenomenon of solo theatre, exemplified in Victoria's Uno Festival (from Intrepid Theatre).

Even though I have performed a one-woman play myself - Joan MacLeod's beautiful play Jewel - and therefore have deep empathy for those who undertake solo performances, I am not at heart a huge fan of solo theatre. For me, theatre is an essentially social art form, along with the other performing arts of dance and music, and what I am most interested in finding at the theatre are meaningful, well-written and well-performed dialogic encounters between characters. While there are some one-person shows that offer dialogue between characters - The Syringa Tree or I Am My Own Wife being good examples of this (although I feel the former to be a better play than the latter, perhaps because it features more inter-character dialogue) - most often a solo play offers one or more characters speaking directly or indirectly to themselves and/or to the audience. Dialogue is deferred in favour of monologue, or perhaps soliloquy. This is fine, and can be fine (as in Jewel, where a widow speaks in soliloquy to her dead husband throughout), but is arguably a far less social experience than that of theatre featuring two or more actors.

This is a philosophical position I am taking that values the inherent power of theatre to allow access to the privileged close observation of human interaction in all its facets; good, bad and ugly. This said, it takes a particularly strong monodrama to compare favorably in my view with a "regular" play.

Lucas Myers, one of the founders of Theatre SKAM, is a favorite actor of mine. Myers has a warm presence, great physicality and broad range that allows him to play drama and comedy with equal success. The Amazing and Impermeable Cromoli Brothers is one brother short as the show begins and St. John Cromoli has been stood-up by his brother Hasbro. But the show must go on, so we are treated to an interactive series of 15 songs and vignettes, the titles of which are posted on chart paper on stage. Audience members are invited by the flustered St. John, an old-school vaudevillian entertainer, to select the order in which they wish to see these pieces. Thus we are engaged in a wide range of "bits" presented with little more than what can be found in a battered red suitcase and accompanied on a ukelele. Myers' songs are sweet and often quite personal (he sings one about his brand new daughter), although they can sometimes contain a bit of a political bite. Some vignettes work better than others, some being little more than throwaway quick gags. My favorite was the cover of Bowie's "Major Tom" with a volunteer audience member playing a breath-powered keyboard (what is that thing called?) and a tiny stuffed Major Tom in a real tin can passed through the house as Myers sings, lit by a single light bulb. Fun and funny, but also quite lovely. The show is very slight, built around Myers' engaging personality; however, if you are a fan this is no bad thing.

Rick Miller and Daniel Brooks' Bigger Than Jesus is a different kettle of solo flying fish. A much more ambitious show, a multimedia piece incorporating ingenious use of live video, BTJ is a major award-winner [three 2004 Doras for play, performer and lighting design] with the positive reviews to match. Working loosely within the framework of the Catholic mass, Miller takes the audience through a part-lecture, part-monologue, part-diatribe, part-homage to the life and legacy of the Big JC Himself. Miller plays "himself" the actor, a Jewish academic, a James-Brownish preacher, a prayer-answering flight attendant, and, finally, Jesus. Woven thoughout are live video feeds from multiple directions in the theatre, sometimes manipulated by Miller himself, that give us backdrop images that are occasionally quite awesome in their power. The play is intelligent, highly theatrical (especially in the scene of the Last Supper as played by Miller in miniature with action figures including Star Wars characters, all projected via video onto the giant backdrop screen) and well-performed by Miller, who is clearly a multi-talented actor.

So why did it make such a small impression on me? I should have been the ideal audience member for this piece, lapsed Catholic that I am (Miller asked us to identify ourselves off the top of the show), but somehow the individual parts that seem very successful in the moment failed to add up to a sum that had an overall effect. Miller and Brooks' point, that Jesus the man and his ideals are very different from the legacy of Christianity and the ignorance and violence wrought in His name, seem a bit like preaching to the choir. Theatregoers tend to be an educated and sophisticated lot...don't we already know these things? What else can be said about the life of Jesus at this point in history and through the medium of theatre that moves us beyond the platitudes of Jesus Christ Superstar or Godspell? Yes, it is arresting to see Miller transform himself into Jesus, back turned at an altar with his face projected onto his vestment, but when he comes downstage to speak to the audience what we get are one-liners mixed in with the familiar Biblical wisdoms; "Love one another ... any questions?"

Beautiful images and skilful performance do not necessarily add up to great theatre. I received more soulful sustenance and real learning from Theatre Inconnu's recent low-budget production of Pinter's The Caretaker around how we human beings so often fail dismally to love one another, than in this highly-individualistic one-man show that failed to convince me of the essential human connection that Jesus tried so hard to reveal.

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