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Little Things Mean a Lot

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The Best of the Fest

Factory Theater

By Justin Hayford

Comedy, like the devil, is in the details. Edward Hopper, not a man of levity, erased nearly all the details from an already nondescript corner diner and ended up with the gloomy masterpiece Nighthawks. Some cutup comes along a few decades later, transplants the faces of Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, and Humphrey Bogart onto Hopper's late-night customers, and voila, instant yucks.

Unlike tragedy, comedy cannot exist in a void, as the winning entries from the Factory Theater's "Shut Up and Laugh" festival demonstrate. The harder these artists work to nail down tiny comic details, the more satisfying the results.

Professional clown Nathan Carver and lyric soprano Sarah Worthington have clearly sweated bullets over their 20-minute routine, Singer and Saw. Their comedy act--an entity all but extinct in contemporary theater--has been painstakingly crafted from the simplest of materials. Carver enters in a one-piece navy work suit and sets a music stand center stage. When he catches sight of the audience he freezes for a moment, then smiles with all the ease of a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming Mack truck. With the expression cemented in place he slowly backs up, taking forever to reach the rear of the stage, where he pauses for a moment, nods politely, and dashes off in an awkward flurry of knees and elbows.

The deliciously economical approach established by Carver and director Jeff Christian creates an enormous amount of tension onstage, a tension Carver thoroughly exploits. In this act, in which Carver is supposed to accompany Worthington, everything that can go wrong does (in fact, before he even enters, we hear a great collapse of cassette tapes coming from behind the soundboard). He can't get his music, printed on a long piece of fabric, to stay on the music stand and ends up tying it there in a preposterously elaborate knot, which makes the music completely illegible. Then he can't find his keyboard; after unscrunching the Velcro on the keyboard cover, he finds only a saw and drum mallet inside. Finally he can't find Worthington and ends up scrambling offstage and carrying her in like an errant floor lamp.

And in case you couldn't see this joke coming a hundred miles away, Carver accompanies his diva on the saw, much to her slow-burning chagrin. The ensuing routine is a gorgeous amalgam of Ernie Kovacs and Victor Borge. It takes the pair an eternity to get ready, and then Worthington's first note is such a shriek that it blows Carver clean off his chair. This is squealingly funny stuff, in part because the performers' shtick is so shamelessly cheap. But at the same time, their expertise is altogether impressive; both are adept physical comedians as well as skilled musicians. It's worth the price of admission to hear Worthington transform her lush soprano into a ghastly warble as the otherworldly tremolo of the saw addles her brain.

Stand-up comedian Gail Stern in her routine Red Dress of Grievances (are comics giving their routines titles these days?) wastes hardly a word or gesture as she transforms tiny moments into broad farce. Like all good comedians, Stern performs effortlessly, never forcing her material. Rather, she relates details from everyday life that most of us would overlook. On a banana in a grocery store she sees a sticker that says "low fat." "What's next," she wonders, "a sticker on milk that says 'boneless'?" When she sees that familiar advertisement asking "Can you draw Binky? You could be an artist," she quickly imagines an ad of her own: "Pick at scabs? You could be a doctor."

While these one-liners are clever enough, Stern spends most of her time telling stories, from which her comedy flows naturally. She gets stuck shopping for bras at JCPenney with her father, a six-foot-three, 280-pound man sweetly pawing through bins of delicates for her. She is debilitated by a "sniper attack" of constipation at a fancy charity function while wearing the skin-tight red dress of the show's title and ends up doubled over in a toilet stall, her arm extended in front of her to keep the stall's broken door closed, "looking like a really pained member of the Supremes."

Part Ellen DeGeneres and part Jeff Garlin, Stern creates deft self-parodies without compromising the subtle feminist streak that runs through her work or denigrating her own appearance, as most female comics seem compelled to do. Blessed with exquisite poise, meticulous timing, and exacting insights, she's everything you could want in a stand-up comedian, a hit TV show waiting to happen.

Of the three acts, only Gabrielle Kaplan's autobiographical piece is painted in broad and occasionally indiscriminate strokes. The intentionally naive Zoom, Gali, Gali! suffers on a bill with such carefully crafted work. Kaplan, a Reader contributor, opens with a story about her mother's first menses and how that initial stain was washed away in shame, suggesting that she intends to find a blood connection to the women of her family, a theme that never develops. Instead she chronicles her upbringing as a Jew in tiny Duncansville, Ohio, stitching together stories that tend to lack thematic consistency. Rather than shaping a unified piece, she offers evidence to prove a rather indisputable point--that growing up a Jew in rural Ohio makes one feel like an outsider.

Kaplan performs with an engaging warmth and candor, and when she sharpens her focus she creates some impeccable moments. On a youth retreat in the Poconos, for example, the 13-year-old Kaplan falls in love with 18-year-old Ned Goldstein, who "looks just like John Travolta except with glasses and really, really fat." But at other times she chooses anecdotes--schoolchildren accusing her of killing Christ, her house being the only one on the block without Christmas lights--that are too well worn to give the piece the personality it needs. At such moments her performance seems somewhat generic and featureless, as though the artist were gazing at her life from too great a distance.

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