Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Review: All in the Timing

Williamsburg Theatre Company
at the Knitting Factory
upcoming performances:
Mondays in November 10PM

FB event (with links to tickets) here

I see a lot of theater, a lot of time time, and I moved to Williamsburg in part because of the art vibe. Thus, I didn't even notice that almost none of the theater I was seeing was in the neighborhood -- with the notable exception to the rule of shows I've seen at the Brick Theater.

Williamsburg Theatre Company, headed up by founder Joe Hendel, is setting out to change that, and they've taken their first crack at it with David Ives' All in the Timing at the Knitting Factory, Mondays in November at 10PM.

It's impossible to launch into a review of this show without talking about how the venue, and its informal atmosphere influenced the production. The Knitting Factory is a music venue, and this marks their first foray into theater; there's no bigger symbol of this than the fully-stocked bar in the performance venue. In theater, this is striking and strange -- in the world of music, this seems pretty par for the course.

And why not? At the beginning of the show, Joe tells us that we can get up and drink anytime. And people, no matter how drunk they are, seem to be able to go and get a drink and return to their seats without being disruptive. Okay, so someone dropped their glass once or twice -- it was mostly during seat changes anyways!

The pieces were introduced by the director and cast-members speaking informally through a microphone, not on the stage but in front of it, in the audience pit. Friendly, approachable -- not direct address in the shocking way that Charles Isherwood hates,
The goal of the night was to make theater approachable, particularly to the realm of the Williamsburg nightlife. The Knitting Factory is an idea venue for that.

Okay, now that we have the venue and framing out of the way, the show itself.

If you're not familiar with David Ives' All in the Timing, it's a bundle of short sketches which all combine a witty central premise with the sort of cheesy over-the-top attitude that drives each idea past their inevitable conclusion and well into the realm of absurdity. It's the sort of wacky evening out that's perfect for a Monday evening and (if I drank) a beer.

But it's also a trap for the lazy theatermaker -- how to deal with all this cheese?

This is, I think, where performers become heroes. And here, they really did step up to the plate. Regardless of the insanity, the moments where they deeply invested in the absurdity of the situation were deeply rewarding. Whether it was Arielle Siegel, eating the most serious banana in the world as one of the three monkeys trapped with a typewriter to recreate Shakespeare, or Sydney Matthews quickly flitting between different genres for Variations on the Death of Trotsky.

Among the stand-out performances, one hero really rose to the challenge: Daniel Johnsen, as the endearing professor/con artist in Universal Language, really brought the passion to a ridiculous-sounding language, and really turned that short vignette into a moving journey.

I'm somewhat joking when I invoke Isherwood's recent rebellion against direct address in theater. In truth, this is not the sort of show where you're going to get yanked out of the audience and then publicly humiliated (the best criticism of which, I think, is in the play Thom Pain Based On Nothing).

Instead, it's the sort of play where the actors are pretty forthright in saying that they're putting on a play. And not in that twisted theoretical way where "actors" let you know that they're putting on a "play," I mean in the way that Joe stands in front of the audience and checks to see that you're enjoying yourself, smiles and makes eye contact.

For instance, the night I went, during The Philadelphia, which was performed at the bar itself, one of the audience members asked an actor if she could sit on the stool next to him. "Sure," he said, and then started his scene. It's a comfortable atmosphere, a humble environment, and a great way.

Why does it work? Because it feels like they're on your side. It's not the combative, fearful relationship that some theater instills -- but it's human beings coming together for a common purpose. It's what Jon Stewart would call sanity.

The glue that quietly holds everything together is Joe Hendel, who founded the company. He hovers in and out of frame with a humble smile and welcomes everyone warmly. That's where you can feel the spirit of the new company: they're here to be your friends, and to show you a good time. And that's what you want on a Monday night at the Knitting Factory, isn't it?

The one word of warning I would give the company: nothing in half measures, please. The few places where the ensemble nearly laughed at themselves were actually a bit disappointing; the places where the ridiculous wasn't done ridiculously enough faltered. I think the company, now that the first performance of their first show is behind them, needs to strike out boldly while still remaining informal and friendly. Even the gags you think aren't working, make sure you sail straight into them. If it worked for 300, it will work for you.

Also: during intermission, you played your own original filmed material on the screen. It was great. I'd love to see you develop your own voice with original work -- sketches and related -- rather than needing other people's work like David Ives. But that's just because I like you.

Go to the Knitting Factory next Monday, or some other Monday this month, and have a good time. That's really what it's about, isn't it?

(DISCLAIMER: I was given a free ticket to this show in exchange for my review.

There. I said it.

I feel much cleaner now that I've made this disclaimer. The taint of my corrupt past can slowly fade, and I can turn my face to the future and hope that, over time, I can regain my standing in your eyes. It may take time and effort, but I'm determined to win back your faith through small actions. As Michael Vick put it, sometimes we have to crawl before we walk.

To all of the voters who put your faith in me, I'm sorry that I let you down. To my beautiful and loving wife, I'm especially sorry.

I hope the FCC will handle this matter in a quick and expedited fashion so that we can all return to our lives.)