INSTANT 3: One Person Shows

From Lenny Bruce to Anna Deveare-Smith. a rich tradition of solo performance work that reaches beyond the limits of theatre and stand-up comedy has been created by the few creative and restless souls with the bravery to attempt work that is truly avant-garde, truly pushing their respective genres into new territory.  Today we see more of a crossover between the underground performance art solo show, historically existing out of the light of nearly everyone only to emerge years later on scratchy VHS tapes, much of it only now being pieced together in documentary films that attempt to bring it into proper perspective, and the commercial comedy club style of stand-up that has reached numerous points of televised saturation, died and been born again, and in recent years only been saved by comics who have set themselves apart from the endless "Comedy Central Presents" crowd by bringing performance art technique into their world.  With Maria Bamford you get a theatrical precision in bringing multiple characters to life that echoes the theatrical work of Smith and Bogosian.  With Patton Oswalt, it's the quality of the writing that makes the difference, creating a stand-up that isn't afraid to indulge dark, absurd poetic flights amid a storytelling mode that isn't always focused on driving the audience headlong into the next punchline.

Anna Deveare-Smith
Maria Bamford
If you have somehow missed Bamford or Oswalt in action, I highly recommend the two concert films featuring them that Netflix offers to Watch Instantly:  The Comedians of Comedy:  The Movie and Comedians of Comedy:  Live at the El Rey, which also contain sets from Zach Galifianakis and Brian Posehn.  In fact, my first "Instant 3" recommendation is for an excellent and overlooked concert film featuring Galafiniakis.  

1.  Zach Galifianakis:  Live at the Purple Onion (2006):  I think my case for having a look at this intimate and unique film has been bolstered by the rise in popularity Galifianakis has experienced, mostly as an industry go-to for an off-kilter sidekick, a somewhat sad attempt to fit a truly creative stand-up mind into a mold that broke with a resounding crack upon the release of flicks like G-Force, Operation: Endgame, and The Hangover II.  Even Galifianakis's turns in more respectable fare like Sean Penn's Into the Wild or Jason Reitman's Up In the Air were not exactly memorable, and his attempt at carrying the Vonnegut-esque indie Visioneers is much better in concept than it is in execution. Taking a look back now at Zach G.'s live show reveals how wasted he has been in the world of movies, especially since his strengths as a performer so obviously lie in his connection and sly confrontation with a live audience.  Perhaps the old-school model of success for stand-ups--from stage to TV to movies--was followed to a fault in this case.  The performance techniques a stand-up comic hones in the live realm have little to do with film acting (much less acting with CGI Special-Ops guinea pigs), and although I'm curious to see where Zach could take his often surreal, performance art-influenced act if he returned to stand-up, I'm doubtful that it's possible for him to return to the stage in the same beautiful, harried manner captured in Live at the Purple Onion.

2.  The Life of Reilly (2006):  I'll admit it.  I went into The Life of Reilly with a knowledge of Charles Nelson Reilly that did not extend far beyond his appearances on "The Match Game," but after seeing the film version of his solo show (filmed during his two final performances of the piece in North Hollywood), I can only recommend that those out there who have a similarly limited view of Reilly should check it out.  The depiction of Reilly's family is at the heart of the piece, with comedic takes on his mother's frightened, racist world view woven throughout.  But for me it's his reminiscences of a time "when people studied acting" that are the most special.  At one point in the show Reilly reads the roster from his 11am acting class with the great teacher Uta Hagen, and the list of names is jaw-dropping.  Unfortunately, the same is true for the number of friends Reilly lost to AIDS throughout his long career, though Reilly never allows the show to become maudlin, trumping sentimentality with genuine sentiment at every turn. The show is ultimately a testament to a remarkable, and remarkably hidden, life in the theatre, and the story of tribute to his first acting teacher was not the only moment that I found terribly moving.  The film itself is thoughtfully edited and punctuated with music and imagery that serves the live performance well.  The film is an 84 minute version of what was supposedly more like a three hour live affair, but certainly doesn't feel like a compromised version of a longer piece.  One of the running jokes of the piece the Snake Pliskin-esque refrain of a question Reilly found commonly applied to himself:  "Is he still alive?"  Unfortunately, we lost this unique performer in 2007, not long after the release of the film.

3.  And Everything is Going Fine (2010):  Spalding Gray was a master monologist with a photographic memory and an uncanny ability for weaving his life into solo shows.  His life and work was haunted by the specter of suicide, to which he ultimately succumbed in 2004.  For those of us who have tried our hand at writing and performing personal narrative, the extent to which we revere what Gray was able to accomplish with such basic theatrical elements is still leaving us in awe.  I was fortunate enough to see Gray perform live twice (Monster in a Box in '92, Morning, Noon, and Night in '99), as well as having met him briefly once in Chicago before a show he performed periodically where he would attempt to meet as many audience members as possible in the lobby before the show, and then chose four of them to interview as the show.  It was honestly one of the few times I have ever been star struck by someone, and I remain so.

Spalding Gray in Gray's Anatomy
Steven Soderbergh directed one of the film versions of Gray's work, Gray's Anatomy, which is not a place I suggest the uninitiated start their exploration of Gray, but neither is Soderbergh's documentary tribute to Gray, And Everything is Going Fine.  The Johnathan Demme directed film version of Swimming to Cambodia still remains the ideal Gray performance film and introduction to his work, and would be wisely paired with a screening of the excellent mid-eighties film to which the title refers, Roland Joffe's The Killing Fields.  And Everything is Going Fine is definitely a film designed as a gift to those who love Gray, and as such is pretty successful, shedding new light on details of his life, as well as giving us pieces of monologues that many of his fans have only encountered in text.  For those new to Gray, take your time with what has previously been captured of Gray first.  For those interested in Soderbergh's work, this is obviously not of a piece with his recent genre exercises, but once again shows the incredibly capable versatility of the director, and, for my money, is more essential than either of his most recent films, 2011's Contagion and this year's Haywire.

No comments: