All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Realizing that a $2.5 million fine may be chump change, or something akin to minimum wage for disgraced billionaire Donald Sterling, the cast of “This Is the Week That Is,” the annual topical comedy revue from 1812 Productions, suggests a more fitting penalty, even more stringent that being banned from professional basketball for life, is to transfer Sterling’s NBA ownership from the playoff-qualifying Los Angeles Clippers to the hapless Philadelphia ’76ers!
Now that’s humor. It takes a current event and veers away from obvious jokes, even tart and judgmental jokes, and heads for the unexpected and a big laugh.
The Sterling gag worked not only because of its unanticipated ending but because it avoids cliché and keeps clear of a bandwagon approach to an issue about which most commentators are saying the same hackneyed thing. It resists going for the political, or politically correct, punch line to opt for a funny payoff that had the right brand of local color.
Oops! Make that local flair.
“That Is the Week That Is” is not always so surprising.
No matter. It is consistently entertaining and can elicit laughs whatever you’re political point of view.
Topical humor is a bear. You have to be aware of the headlines while keeping in mind the stories with which the audience might be familiar. You have to be sharp and current while maintaining a sixth sense about when to go for the jugular and risk offending disagreeing audience members and when to remain mild and neutral and let the broached current event do the work.
The 1812 crew, under the direction of comedy scholar Jennifer Childs, have enough experience to pitch its act just right. 1812 tends to have a liberal bent, but it can hurl salvoes towards the political left, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama while lampooning the right, Chris Christie, and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell who takes the “O’s” out of all words because they may remind folks of the “O” in the trademark Obama logo.
Childs and company choose good targets. They satirize the acquisitiveness of Russian president Vladimir Putin, give Hillary Clinton a bang-up parody of Stephen Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here,” and take a swipe at Obamacare by having Scott Greer play a slick, unlistening government official that dictates that all theater companies must do musicals under a program called the Applaudable Care Act, or Odramacare. They also have Bill Clinton walk off with a Fulbright scholar working for Hillary’s 2016 campaign, right in front of Hillary, who is exasperated but quickly shakes off her embarrassment.
Scott Greer reads the news with a jaundiced eye, and Childs has a wonderful bit in which she tracks the doings of Congress by highlighting headlines from the April 3, 2014 Congressional Record.
Music abounds in “This Is the Week That Is,” and not only because of the insistence of Greer’s government creep. Song and dance helps to move the production at a brisk pace and add show biz ‘zazz that is the hallmark of a successful revue. Childs shows that, contrary to the title of one of her solo pieces, she is an excellent dancer. A closing sequence in which Greer starts playing a guitar, and each of “Week’s” five-member cast joins in with a different instrument, including three different parts of a drum kit, shows a lot of savvy while warning “We Are on the Road to Nowhere.”
Each member of the 1812 troupe — Childs, Greer, David Jadico, Aimé Donna Kelly, and Alex Bechtel — proved to be versatile and exude an amused brightness that gives “That Is the Week That Is” an appropriately tongue-in-cheek tone. The troupe entertains while showing their interest and even their perceptiveness about today’s news. Agree or disagree with a particular point of view, or groan at an occasional joke, particularly during Greer’s newscast, “This Is the Week That Was” entertains by finding genuine humor in the news and presenting it with theatrical aplomb.
Oh, and Childs appears at that discerning South Philly sage, Patsy, an everyday woman who finds every question excellent and who will tell youse “all’s I know” about any subject you can mention. Patsy, like much in “Week,” seems to be especially ticked about the disparity in wages that shows women receive 77 cents when doing the same job for which men receive a dollar. Patsy thinks about giving her husband 77 percent of his dinner and a like percentage of other pleasures, if you catch my drift.
As much as it covers politics, “This Is the Week That Is” speaks to the evolution of Philadelphia theater. In addition to Childs’s canny writing and direction that artfully blends cannonballs and winks, 1812 presents a troupe of actors with the ability to sing, dance, clown, play instruments (and really play them), and hold characters. This is polished, professional stuff, worthy of any stage in the world, and I give the 1812 ensemble credit for personifying the easy versatility and overall performance skill rampant in the Delaware Valley. Childs, Greer, and Jadico have proven their mettle season after season, yet all continue to grow (and I’m not referring to Scott’s size). Kelly has had an amazing season in which she’s been called upon to be dramatic, musical, and comic and aced every assignment. Bechtel, with his a grin that makes it look as if he’s perpetually amused, shows comic flair and musical ability. Childs has assembled a great show, but even more than making material that is difficult to conceive and execute into an entertainment, she and her cast display the scope and zest of theater because it is timing, presentation, and assurance about how to engage and hold an audience that is at work on the Plays & Players stage where “This Is the Week That Was” appears and that makes the topical into fun.
Although the 2016 Presidential election is two years away, the 1812 troupe can’t avoid commenting on it. Two of the best prolonged sketches are a musical in which Hillary Clinton, reminding folks “I’m Still Here” as if we could forget, at first asks people to encourage her to run for the Presidency and then campaigns avidly to get votes, and a “To Tell The Truth” takeoff in which Chris Christie, played by Childs padded to four times her diminutive size, and looking as if she’s 2’6″ with the girth, berates Kelly, as the contestant trying to divine the real Christie, by calling her a moron and branding her questions as stupid and without insight.
In a spate of fairness I did not expect from liberal-minded theater folk I know to lean more than a tad left, and that pleased me for its even-handedness, the 1812 troupe foreshadowed its “Road to Nowhere” finale by doing an “Avenue O” skit, complete with darling puppets, that expresses disappointment with “O” himself, President Obama, but lampoons everyone from the right and the left, Democrat, Republican, and Libertarian who might replace him or serve as an alternative to his Obaminable policies. It seems that whether one tends towards the liberal or takes Thomas Jefferson’s “the government that governs best governs least” stance, disenfranchisement is the common lot. 1812 expressed that well and entertainingly while taking on everyone from Rand Paul to Al Sharpton.
Jadico is a master at working with puppets. He looks directly at the puppet, as if looking it in the eye, and takes on the expression the fixed puppet cannot muster. Childs followed suit. All did a good job, but Jadico and Childs made their work more affecting because of their technique.
The writing for this year’s “This Is the Week That Is” is more balanced yet sharper and more effective than it has been in any past season. Matching this incisiveness, which I take to be a group effort managed by Childs, with strong theatrical savvy makes this a wonderful show. Headlines may change every day and affect Greer’s news sequence, but the basic elements — the Clinton, Christie, and “Avenue O” skits — are sure to be consistent which means, adapt to the news as it might, 1812’s “This Is the Week That Is” is the champion of this midterm political year. It certainly makes more points and has more style that any of the candidates.
“This Is the Week That Is,” produced by 1812 Productions, runs through Sunday, June 1 at Plays & Players, 1714 Delancey Street, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. A 7 p.m. performance is scheduled for Monday, May 19. Tickets range from $40 to $25 and can be obtained by calling 215-592-9560 or going online to www.1812productions.org.