ZIEGFELD'S LAST WORDS
Avenue Productions and Temporary Theater Company
at the Avenue Theatre
A NIGHT AT THE FIGHTS
Monumental Oak Rapier & Dagger Club
at the Project
The raison d'etre of Ziegfeld's Last Words is nostalgia. The premise is that vaudeville died, and so the Temporary Theater Company and Avenue Productions want to bring back its good old days, with good old skits and tricks that were forgotten long ago--relegated to shelves in dusty archives.
I find this reasoning problematic. First, the recent phenomenon of new vaudevillians, like clowns Bill Irwin and Geoff Hoyle, indicates that at least parts of vaudeville have either survived or are making a comeback. In fact, Irwin's much acclaimed In Regard of Flight (an extremely successful show in both San Francisco and New York that was also recorded for PBS) is essentially a dissertation on vaudeville, a reminder that performers today rely on tricks and turns developed in vaudeville's heyday. Second, there may be very good reason why some acts have slipped into obscurity. If Ziegfeld's Last Words, whose sketches have been carefully researched and authentically reproduced, is any indication, the archives are the best place for them.
The setup for the acts, and the source for this production's title, is the presence of a doddering Flo Ziegfeld. He bumbles about, performing minor magic tricks while he talks about his life in vaudeville. Whenever he exits, vaudeville's lost gems appear before us.
This production is among the most amateur I've seen; it's like a high school pep assembly. The staging is awkward and clumsy; the lights achieve no depth, color, mood, or variation. Though Ziegfeld mentions people and places during his occasional appearances, we're told nothing about them; instead of enlightening us about the turn of the century, the names are just confusing. Director Suzanne E. Hannon has no feel for what makes something funny--even a simple cream-pie-in-the-face sequence loses its appeal because there's almost no cream on the "pies." But the main problem is the acts themselves, which are for the most part dreadful.
In the "egg dance," a woman dressed in a Robin Hood outfit delicately places eggs about the stage and proceeds to perform ungainly leaps and silly dance steps, for the most part nowhere near the eggs. There's an absurdly hammy spoof of Sarah Bernhardt in the sleepwalking scene from Macbeth that seems to make fun of both the old-fashioned grandiose style of acting and William Shakespeare. But it's very unclear whether the performer is consciously trying to portray outrageously bad acting or whether it's just her own quirky acting style. There's also a ridiculously juvenile version of an old favorite of mine, "The Marriage of Frog and Mouse," which I knew from my Burl Ives album as "Frog Went a-Courtin'." I used to play that song and act it out too, but I was five years old at the time and never dreamed of charging admission. The Flo Ziegfeld character is the cap to this seemingly endless nonsense, a young man with sprayed white hair who occasionally totters about the stage for no apparent reason.
There is some occasional relief from the evening's tedium. Chris Fascione is a skilled performer with many voices, tricks, and physical talents--one of the few cast members who could have been a vaudevillian--and he provides two bright spots. His rendition of "Casey at the Bat" is a little strange: among other odd choices, he makes the pitcher the Church Lady from Saturday Night Live. But the sketch shows his marvelous versatility and style: Fascione shifts from character to character with facility and grace. Later in the show he juggles. I've never seen anyone juggle scarves before--it's really quite amazing--and though I have seen jugglers who eat the apples they're juggling, it's still fun to watch when Fascione does it.
Kim Swinton, who claims to be able to play any musical instrument put in front of her, is the other shining light. We only get to see her with a guitar and a banjo, but her musical talents are clearly formidable, and she's a charming performer--simple, honest, and homespun. Her folksy songs feel out of place in a vaudeville show, but it's still a breath of fresh air to hear them.
My grandmother always tells me that the old vaudeville wasn't so great, that in fact a lot of acts were awful. I never believed her. After all, so many classic performers came out of vaudeville: Burns and Allen, the Marx Brothers, Eddie Cantor, Sammy Davis Jr.--the list goes on and on. But if this show is truly authentic, my grandmother is absolutely right. Either vaudeville was lousy, or these particular acts are the ones that killed it. May they rest in peace.
If you really want to see a clever, innovative resuscitation of a little-seen art form, you'd be much better off going to the Monumental Oak Rapier & Dagger Club's A Night at the Fights, an evening of swordplay and stage combat with a twist: no scene has actually been written with stage combat in mind, and certainly not with rapiers and daggers.
The Monumental Oaks are a fictitious club of stage fighters who trace their history back to the turn of the century. In recent years, however, the Oaks have fallen into extremely violent tendencies. One of their last fights, during a scene from Romeo and Juliet, landed them all in the hospital. So the club became involved in group therapy, which taught them nonviolence and group hugs. They are now ready to demonstrate their stage-combat techniques--without touching swords, of course. During the course of the evening, however, things go awry, and much sword battle and other stage fighting occurs.
The fights are demonstrated in three scenes from three quite different plays: Moliere's The Misanthrope, Sam Shepard's Fool for Love, and Neil Simon's The Odd Couple. Each familiar scene has its own strengths and weaknesses.
Martie Sanders and Lauren Campedelli, the duelists in The Misanthrope, are less skilled fighters than the rest of the cast, but they do a wonderful job of bringing their Monumental Oak characters to the scene: though they're faithful to Moliere's text, they shade it with the emotions carried over from their "true life" roles as violently jealous roommates. They also have a marvelous moment hovering on the brink of sword clashing, when they become more and more aroused by the possibility.
The well-acted Fool for Love, with Patricia Kane and Frank Nall, beautifully intermingles the fight sequences with the scene itself--it's almost plausible that Shepard intended it that way. John Hines and Ned Mochel in The Odd Couple have the most interesting sword sequences, and some delightfully silly acting. Mochel's fluid movement juxtaposed with Hines's absurd posturing is something to see.
The show does have its problems. The premise of the Monumental Oaks club gets lost during the course of the evening; the scenes go on a bit too long. And the space is awfully small to contain lively fight sequences.
Still, it's a solid, clean, funny, all-around well-acted piece that puts the idea of stage combat in a different light. Besides, you haven't really seen Oscar and Felix go at it until you've seen them do it with rapiers, daggers, and rolling pins.