Brand Names

Great Expectations: Josh Will in Happiness for Dummies.

Avenue X
Great American History Theatre

Happiness for Dummies:
An Idiot's Guide to the Soul
The Brave New Workshop

LIKE THEATER CRITICS, theaters develop shticks--that's how they get their funding and build their audiences. At one time, you could generally count on a Theatre de la Jeune Lune show for eye-popping visuals. That was no accident: They knew they were good at that. (Lately, however, they've tried to move beyond their comfort zone.) Attend any In the Heart of the Beast show and you can always expect fantastic puppets, hippyish production values, and simplistic political messages. Same goes for the Guthrie: These days, you're guaranteed expensive-looking sets and costumes, mature direction and acting, and little to no artistic experimentation. There's a certain pleasure in that consistency, in gradually learning to understand a theater's aesthetic, and then recognizing those moments when artists venture into new territory.

But the murky region between safety and experimentation is where any artist with a healthy pulse has to struggle--if only to avoid boredom. And audiences should understand that. It's vital for theaters to fuck up now and then, and it's also essential for audiences to let artists know when they think the work is junk. The relationship should be liberating and long-term, like an open marriage. The actors at Hidden Theatre have formulated all of this into their game plan: They will tell you repeatedly that they don't want you to expect a certain visual style or a particular genre. Unfortunately, that may work against them in the end--they've already earned purple hearts in the guerrilla war for viewers.

To my mind, the Great American History Theatre has developed both an identity and a shtick, and apparently, it's working for them: They've found their audience. Their new show, Avenue X, an a cappella musical directed by Ron Peluso, is pure History Theatre (though it's not an original production). The theater's artistic sensibility is encapsulated in the opening scene:
A group of eight people, black and white, stand on an empty stage facing the audience, looking deadly earnest. Spotlights illuminate their faces as they sing low together; one half-expects them to break into "We Are a Gentle Angry People" at any moment. The piece takes place in 1963 and deals with two young men living on different sides of the block--Avenue X--in Brooklyn. One's an Italian who grew up there, the other is part of an influx of African Americans. They meet one night singing in the sewer, where the acoustics are good. They strike up a tentative friendship and start preparing for an amateur contest, but their friends and families will do everything they can to keep them apart. Yes, Shakespeare did write a similar story.

Meanwhile, the white boy, Pasquale (Joseph St. James), has a beautiful sister, Barbara (Norah Long). She's depressed about her crummy life and must constantly fight off advances from Chuck (Peter Provost), a meathead stalker-in-training. The black boy, Milton (Kevin Kirkendahl), has his own troubles: He argues constantly with his stepfather, Roscoe (Jimmy Russell), who is himself a frustrated singer and fears the boy is destined for disappointment (Fences, anyone?). But doo-wop is the common language among these working-class people, and they break into song whenever things get tense.

Some of the music, admittedly, is great. But while everyone has a good voice, Jasmine Jones and Jimmy Russell, who play Milton's parents, have vocal chords that have been burnished by God. (Or maybe, as I heard in passing, they just had sore throats.) But while the singing is dandy, the between-song acting is mostly a contest of who can yell the loudest. That's a shame, because the connection between the two leads is touching. Like every History Theatre show, this one has a bright and shining message--and, in this case, it's also fitting: The best connections between white people and people of color are forged out of common interests and mutual necessity, not good intentions.

The Brave New Workshop is at an intriguing point in its own life story. This theater's shtick is both a boon and a handicap. On the one hand, they can claim to be the oldest continuously running satire revue in the country: This show marks their 40th season. On the other, the theater's new owners have to prove that their name still means something. So far, the work they've done since the change of ownership has been generally funnier and less predictable than before, though my friend's observation still holds: You always know what to expect from a Brave New Workshop show. About three skits will be outright hilarious, about 10 will be sort of amusing, and two or three are duds. One happy difference: The new work is never boring, and often pleasantly bewildering.

They're experimenting with format, and instead of using a solid plot, they string together a series of semi-related skits. Happiness for Dummies, directed by Mark Bergren, more or less tackles spiritual confusion in late-20th-century America. "Emotional Vampire" hits home: Spoofing Interview With the Vampire, the charismatic Josh Will plays a guy who sucks off other people's emotions while never revealing his own. A song called "Breathe" pokes fun at the Lilith Fair phenomenon--its lyrics are the mundane diary entries of a singer who used to live in her car. And "Surge," another Will vehicle, takes a truly hallucinatory trip inside the mind of a tabloid journalist who covers celebrity deaths.

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