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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

This Is The Week That Is — 1812 Productions at Plays & Players

This Week -- interiorWhat a difference a season makes!

Last spring, 1812 Productions moved its annual “This Is The Week That Is” from the holiday slot to April.  The show had zing to it. Skits generally worked. Satire was well-placed. Best of all, politics were presented even-handedly. Hillary Clinton got as thorough a roasting as Chris Christie, and commentators of all stripes were lampooned for putting bombast ahead of journalism. (Al Sharpton, I ask you!) Even issues you could tell were lodged firmly in writer Jennifer Childs’s craw, such as women receiving equal pay for equal work (as if equal work can really be measured), were handled with a comic touch that made them funny, agree with Childs’s point of view or not.

The point is the April 2014 rendition of “This Is The Week That Is” displayed a sense of perspective and proportion I found deft, admirable, shrewd, and satisfying. The comic muse truly smiled on 1812 during that production.

The current version is just the opposite. Childs and a cadre of co-authors seems to have glommed on specific pet themes they tend to whip to death. Polemic and proselytizing have taken the place of neutral or incisive wit, and a single political bent, in spite of wry slaps at Mme. Clinton, seems to dominate. This season’s “This Is the Week That Is” is a choir practice in which the 1812 ensemble preaches to kneejerk acolytes. Childs hasn’t lost her comic timing. There’s some fine rimshot set-ups that save the third item on a list for a potent punch line. Some snide comments have the tart savagery you want from a topical revue. Don Montrey deadpans his newscast well, Childs, as Patsy from Shunk Street, makes a welcome appearance on tape, and Dave Jadico, bless him, seems more intent on entertaining than selling any political philosophy, but, for the most part, December’s “This Is The Week That Is,” sacrifices sangfroid, wise laughs, and across-the-board skewering for almost simplistic banality that caters — no, panders —  anally to an MSNBC idea of the world and misses the edge, impartiality, and full-spirited humor of past productions.

Believe me, I wouldn’t advocate for a Fox News Channel picture of life on Earth or look for a reflection of my own politics, which are decidedly laissez faire and border on abject indifference based on my pronounced “Lord, what fools these mortals be” attitude, but Childs, and the people with whom she works, have perennially showed a sense of context and a mind towards exposing folly that I rarely saw this time. I wonder if we are living through a period when so much is absurd, exaggerated, and paradoxically dull that the Obamas, Christies, Clintons, Putins, Netanyahus, and random caliphs are satires in themselves and don’t warrant any humorous gags to show how they put the world in a tizzy. I also wonder whether Jennifer Childs and her crew are so miffed at political doings, such as the turnover in Congress, the failure to address issues rather than wallowing in adversarial ideology, and alleged rebels who are worse than the leaders they want to replace, that they decided to go headlong into presenting their own point of view, funny or not. Is a puzzlement!

Comedy is historically on the side of middle-of-the-road sanity, and “This Is The Week That Is,” even though it always conveys a liberal bent, usually adheres to that theorem. This year, though I enjoyed several legitimate laughs, such as when Scott Greer, playing an articulate and logical Sasquatch, says he’s going to quote himself and then roars in a deep, throaty bellow, which he repeats later for effect, when Tabitha Allen attempts to play a reasonable news show guest while moderator Aimé Donna Kelly emotionally pole vaults over the top in an otherwise insufferable sequence called “Hey, Bitches,” or when Childs, as writer, reverts to her game self and reviews the Presidential contenders for 2016, markedly pointing out that the Republicans have a field of possible candidates while Democrats seemed locked on only one, Hillary Clinton. (Martin O’Malley, eat your heart out. Comic necessity dictated you couldn’t even make a bland list of hopefuls.)

Some ideas looked promising but suffered in execution, for instance Kelly, Allen, and Susan Riley Stevens appearing as The Supremes — Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan — who luckily stopped their uninteresting blather and closed their spot with a mean “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” using Diana Ross’s solo version as their model. Scott Greer polling the ensemble, dressed in varied versions of red, white, and blue workout gear, about the firmness of their political affiliations, seems clever until it becomes heavy-handed. (This bit recovers somewhat when the cast joins Greer in “It’s All About the Base,” a parody of one of 2014’s most popular songs and one of moments that combines some arch commentary with musical spirit.) I wanted to hear what Stevens would have to say about women’s equality until the bit turned out to be clichéd piffle, if lavishly produced. An opening sequence in which the entire cast, playing germophobes who react to emcee Dave Jadico’s handshakes and touches as if he had the plague, makes its point early and lingers on past its welcome. The opposite happens in an inane sketch about Pluto’s wobbly status as a planet. The beginning material is sophomoric and boring, but the Pluto sequence gives the “TITWTI” cast the chance to do a bang-up job singing Jim Steinman’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”

This is the problem with “This Is The Week That Is.” Greer’s Sasquatch bit, which references his cousin Nessie, is the only piece that seems to work in its entirety, its point being the stereotypical image popular journalism has given to fictional “monsters” and the intrusion of privacy this causes.

Ebola is a leitmotif through the show, and I remember only one good joke about what might be undue fear of the virus proliferating. Women’s issues are stated too broadly for satire, and while Childs on others make points, they don’t persuade, convince, or entertain much with then. Incoming Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell (assuming the Republican caucus re-elects him) is a popular target. One or twice, he shares a punch line with Speaker of the House, John Boehner, but rarely does anything hit home. I get the surprising impression that Hillary Clinton is not the favored Democrat for 2016 among the “TITWTI” bunch and was more surprised to see President Barack Obama take some punishment for his administration.

Doings in  Ferguson and Brooklyn were given short shrift, although “TITWTI” is updated throughout the run, and a bit or a story I haven’t seen may have been inserted into Montrey’s newscast since the opening week.

One idea I would like to have seen take hold is a spoof of AMC’s “Mad Men,” in which Jadico and Stevens in particular do a great job satirizing Jon Hamm’s Don Draper and Christina Hendricks’s Joan Harris. Montrey is also good as a dotty, half-drunk Sterling. The “TITWTI” team gets the takeoff of the television program right, including its now iconic (and elongated) opening of Draper in freefall, but as is the habit this December, the jokes fade when the cast gets to the meat of the matter. As Draper metaphorically says, his agency can market camphor to moths, so Greer and Kelly arrive from the government to see how they can get public backing for policies or actions that are proving unpopular or controversial. The “TITWTI” ideas show creativity, but they don’t have real bite. Nor do they hit on subjects that really have voters on edge. Opinions about drone strikes and fracking, for instance, are mixed even if the “TITWTI” troupe would posit that a majority of people are outraged about them. This is an example of what I mean when I say the current version lacks perspective.

While 1812’s material falls more than it rises, its cast shows a wide range of talent.

Aimé Donna Kelly is solid as a presentational entertainer, singing, dancing, and doing broad comedy with aplomb while quickly adapting to playing any kind of character. I was not impressed with the content of ” Hey, Bitches,” but I liked the abandon with which Kelly portrayed her amok commentator

Scott Greer is the master of versatility whether he takes on the hangdog look of a child who’s just been admonished, the authority of chairman of a Board, the guilty expression of the cat who ate the canary, or a creature parading in black fleece as an eloquent Sasquatch. (Roar!!!!).

Dave Jadico is a constant touch of class. No matter how silly a costume you put him in, he always looks preppy and agile. I just realized Jadico didn’t juggle or do any grand gymnastics in this “TITWTI.” Hey, what gives?

Susan Riley Stevens is a rare combination of sophisticated flair and comic energy. She looks so disarmingly calm but can lash out at any moment with a gag line or play an extreme character with gusto.

Don Montrey is another who can be a gentleman one moment and a raving maniac the next. He does well with his news report but is better as a chameleon in various sketches.

Tabitha Allen, ostensibly on stage to make music, often looks askew at the antics of her stagemates, but when called upon, she’s right there making mayhem with them.

“This Is The Week That Was” looked wonderful this year, the set and production values being vastly upgraded as the comedy, alas, struggled.

Lance Kniskern’s set features three large screens that can show stills, slides, videos while having the capability to turn into live action monitors for sequences showing Jadico quizzing an audience member in the lobby or that broadcast backstage shenanigans. These screens add color and variety to Childs’s production, several of the projections being sight gags and eliciting laughs on their own. (You can tell Childs is a native of Ohio. Not many would know to include Buckeye governor John Kasich in a field of Republican presidential contenders.) The concept works and should be retained for subsequent “TITWTI” productions.

The most consistently witty part of December’s “TITWTI” is Lauren Perigard’s costumes, each one a tribute to creativity that knows how to go for the throat. Perigard is wonder at using basic materials for outlandish effect, an example being her solution to making Greer’s Sasquatch suit. The designer shows taste even in choosing colorful gym clothes or finding a varied way to dress the entire cast in black.

Video and sound are critical to Childs’s staging, and Jorge Cousineau, as usual, comes through with some wonderful effects. The seamlessness of Allen going from a video screen to her piano at the top of “TITWTI” is a gem.

While I keep crediting, or blaming Childs as “TITWTI’s” writer, I get the impression as I read the program and think through the sketches that Jen concentrated more on directing this year and gave most narrative sway to her cast and fellow scribes, Emily Kleimo, Greg Nix, and Montrey. That might explain the radical — pardon the pun; it was unintended, but it works — difference in the tone of this show compared to previous “TITWTIs,” particularly the gem that graced the Plays & Players stage in the spring.

“This Is The Week That Is” leaves me with one burning question. Who is it among the “TITWTI” troupes that is such a basketball fan? For at least the second installment in a row, “TITWTI” has some good jokes aimed at the hapless Philadelphia ’76ers, who are pursuing an insulting strategy of purposely losing games to raise their position in the next NBA draft to get better prospects. With thinking like that, I hope the Sixers go back to dear old Syracuse from which they sprang. Intentional losing is the ruination of sports, whatever the reason.

So much for my soapbox, as if everything I write isn’t a soapbox of sorts. Who am I kidding?

Jennifer Childs closes her program notes by saying, “The world needs more comedy.” I agree, and I know that 1812 Productions is capable of a high level of comedy. Even this lesser rendition of “TITWTI” has enough laughs to keep a disappointed grouse entertained to a point. Every laugh is honest, but I’d prefer laughs that come from seeing the comic insanity in a situation, as Childs has managed before, rather than laughs that come from preaching to a predictable Center City choir, laughs I refer to as “heh-hehs” and that I find slightly contemptible in their conspiratorial ease. Especially at a time when every Democrat and every Republican is a buffoon that merits equal flaying and when some critical issues deserve deep examination, rather than kneejerk “heh-hehing,” to find the real and substantive joke in them.

“This Is The Week That Is,” produced by 1812 Productions, runs through Wednesday, December 31, at Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey Street, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Additional performances are scheduled for  6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 17, 7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 22 and 29, 8 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 23 and 30, and 8 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, Wednesday, Dec. 31. No performances are scheduled for Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, or Christmas, Dec. 25. Tickets range from $40 to $26 and can be obtained by calling 215-592-9560 or visiting www.1812productions.org.

 

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