September 25, 2003

The World's A Stage

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I have a good friend back home who has a tendency to put on a one-man show now and again. When I say “now and again” what I actually mean is that right now he is putting on a show to any audience present, and by the end of this column he will begin again with another.

You know the kind of guy: The kind of guy who wants everybody in the room to know he’s there. The kind of guy who feels that it’s his life’s duty to entertain anyone and everyone he meets. The kind of guy who is undoubtedly within a 50 ft. radius of you right now, if you can bare to tear your eyes away from the fascination magnet that is daze.

The fact is: the world around us is in no shortage of people seemingly happy to be the center of attention. Quick cut to the thespian world and, umm, where did all these one-man shows go? The one-man show is a rare species indeed. Heaven knows the ratio of group-performance to one-person acts currently running nationwide but I would imagine it’s astoundingly lop-sided. Isn’t this slightly surprising in a profession so inherently competitive, so filled with efflorescing actors fighting for the limelight? The truth is, putting on a one-man show involves high risk from the perspective of the writer or director. Go fishing in the sea of out-of-work actors and you’ll be lucky if you catch someone who can effectively pull-off such a task.

Perhaps one of the most memorable one-man shows in recent history was Steven Berkoff’s One Man. The play was split into three vastly different performances. The first of these was a version of Edgar Allen Poe’s gothic horror story, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” in which Berkoff is a murderer who kills another character played by himself, who is then later interrogated by policemen played by himself. In the second, titled “Dog,” Berkoff played both an Englishman and his pit bull, exploring the relationship between this stereotyped twosome.

The last part of One Man is titled “Actor” where Berkoff portrayed the lifetime of a struggling but persistent actor. Berkoff’s originality and talent as an emotional and physical actor was never in question, but the play still received mixed reviews. The problem is that one person can seldom please everybody. A large cast, on the other hand, is a lot more conducive to pleasing a diverse audience; whether it is due to the range of characters with which to connect, the visual appeal of a busy and lively stage, or maybe it’s just that having one person can become tiresome to watch.

I for one know that my dislike for Eddie Murphy arose from his ever increasing attempts to turn his movies into one-man shows (see Nutty Professor 2: The Klumps). Casey Stangl, a Minneapolis-based artistic director and director of several one-man plays, notes, “The actor-director relationship is very different with one-person shows — more intimate, more concerned with playing to the actor’s strength.” It is inferred then that the actor-audience relationship will be different, as we are not so much seeing an actor molded to a role, but rather a role molded to an actor. As a result, if an actor displeases an audience, the audience is displeased with the play. And this is the risk that seems to be avoided. Of course, these one-man plays are out there — often peaking out of the shade of off-Broadway venues and the like — but the prominent response to a one-man show is incontestably one of intrigue, for example: “ooh this is different,” and not, “oh another one of those.”

The former of these sentiments is currently being heard around Ithaca as Becky Mode’s acclaimed one-man show, Fully Committed, is running at the Kitchen Theatre through October 11. The play follows “a day in the life of an out-of-work actor who mans the red-hot reservation line at Manhattan’s number one restaurant. Coercion, threats, bribes, histrionics-a cast of desperate callers will stop at nothing in their zeal to land a prime reservation, or the right table.” The play stars Joe Schmo as Joe Schmo and is directed by Rachel Lampert.The play, which has seen success in both New York (The Cherry Lane Theatre) and Los Angeles (The Coronet Theatre), has dropped onto our collective doorstep providing us with probably the only chance to see such a play in Ithaca this year. This rarity leads me to say, if you see only one show all year, you should make this it.

As for my friend back home, I’m hoping his frequent but ultimately enjoyable solo acts could lead to a successful acting career. I’m also hoping that if I get to write about it, I’ll be praising him like I would Berkoff — not grimacing at the screen like I do with Murphy. But that’s a column for another day.

Archived article by Tom Britton