Take My Life--Please

A dance company looks at the creeping pathos of Catskills comedy

So, a guy walks into a restaurant and the maitre d' asks, "How many are in your party, sir?" The guy says, "That's no party, that's my wife!" Ba da boom. While this little exchange was overheard in a Milwaukee establishment, the 12-year-old choreographic team of Shapiro & Smith Dance (Danial Shapiro and Joanie Smith) are doing their part to channel the spirit of Henny Youngman even farther west of the Catskills, while trying to revive the art of shtick.

"I really like the failure of the Catskills," explains Shapiro, referring to the once-thriving comedy central where the punch lines came in great quantity--if not always great quality. He relaxes in the sun at a Kenwood park as his chocolate Lab Bessie (named for the late revered dance guru Bessie Schönberg) romps with the other dogs, and continues: "The essence of bad humor, that's just what the Catskills are all about." Shapiro, a 41-year-old with an athletic build and expressive face, identifies the laughter of his childhood as the inspiration for the company's Schtick: A Life, premiering this weekend at the Southern Theater. "You write about what you know. I'm Jewish, and we told jokes after dinner. My mother had a great sense of humor--even when she was interviewed by Steven Spielberg for the Shoah Project," a film archive collecting Holocaust survivor stories.

His love for the groaner led to the beginnings of a solo dance in which he deconstructed the prototypical Catskills delivery that still lives on in the acts of Jackie Mason and Rodney Dangerfield. He interspersed punch lines and mugging for the crowd with slapstick-inspired dancing. But he soon realized something was missing from his big act. "It was the obvious version," he explains, stating that the punch lines made for easy laughs but did not delve deep enough into the "entertainer" psyche.

Danial Shapiro delivers a punch line from Schtick: A Life
Danial Shapiro delivers a punch line from Schtick: A Life

Enter New York-based writer, director, and performer David Greenspan, a recent Obie award winner for his dramatic turn in The Boys in the Band, and a friend from the company's days in New York City. (They moved to Minneapolis in 1995 when Smith accepted a faculty position at the University of Minnesota Dance Department.) Soon the solo developed into a group work for all seven members of the company. "David tore the whole piece apart," says Shapiro. "He stopped the Henny Youngman jokes. He didn't want us hearing other voices, only his own. He's so excited about writing jokes."

Greenspan concocted a sound score (along with composer Scott Killian) made up of continuous setups that never get to the punch line ("So one breast says to the other breast, so a doctor says to a nurse," and so on). Now there's a lot of show-biz-style presentation in the funny, thoughtful piece, including mambos, cha-chas, what Smith dubs an "obsessive postmodern tap dance," and a healthy helping of cheese. "It's a full package of personalities," observes Shapiro, noting the internal pull between the easy yuk and something deeper, and sadder. You're not always "on" in the life that occurs offstage; at some point you have to deal with yourself without an audience to grant approval.

Once the role of humor was established, Shapiro and Smith began to outline a broader goal for the work. "It's about aging and performance," explains Smith, age 48, whose stylish shock of red hair contrasts with some rather professorial glasses. To this end, Smith's conception of the piece reflects a seemingly national trend by midcareer artists (including local performers Beth Corning, Danny Buraczeski, and Bonnie Mathis) to evaluate their identities in the uncertain terrain between brash youth and established elder. "But it's not about 'poor me,'" she says. "It's just a jumping-off point." She goes on to explain two recurring characters, one a comedian who has chosen to bow out gracefully and the other who continues to seek the limelight well past his prime. "I do a solo about a performer who's left. I sit at a table doing finger dances, recalling the act. It's lovely and bittersweet."

Shapiro, on the other hand, plays the guy who just can't grasp that his time is up. "Finally another [younger] dancer has to tell him to leave," says Smith. "It's all about allowing one generation to tell another to stop. It's like with older businessmen who never learned how to work on computers. Now they have to learn or get out."

 
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