Saturday, Aug. 15, 2009

Drama in Riverwest/Comedy In Bay View

By Russ Bickerstaff
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The weekend had fallen together for me in a very, very strange way . . . I was scheduled to see two shows last night. If I was really going to be able to make it to both of them, things would be tight . . .



My first show of the evening was the big public premiere of Insurgent Theatre's Ulysses’ Crewmen. . . the drama by Ben Turk featuring himself and Kate Pleuss. A full review of the show runs in next week’s Shepherd-Express. The drama of a revolutionary kidnapping a delegate to a G20 trade summit in the contemporary U.S. plays out in a pleasantly cluttered little Riverwest space. It’s a free show, (donations are encouraged) so it was packed. Things developed pretty quickly. Pleuss shows a real talent for drama. Having seen a test performance of the show earlier I know how the play ends . . . and knowing that I had a rather precise bus to catch in order to be able to see Alex Grindeland’s stand-up, I only hoped that someone would help Ben out quickly enough for me to make both shows. I’m not going to get into a lengthy analysis of the play here. There’s something about the end, though . . . something that kind of pisses me off even though it’s kind of clever . . . and as it’s something that I could go on about for 1,000 words or more, so I’ll leave that for a later entry.  There’s a performance at Cream City Collectives again tonight. If you’ve got the night free, see it, It’s kind of a fascinating show. The show starts at 8pm tonight.

Luckily, factors worked in my favor and I was quickly crossing the river to catch a #15 bus . . . the 9:36 out of Oakland and North  would get me to the Alchemist theatre right around 10pm. The Insurgent show wrapped-up right around 9:20pm. I got a bit of quick exercise in and made it to the corner of Oakland and North at 9:33pm for a 9:36 #15 out of Oakland and North . . . a 9:36 #15 that was . . . twenty minutes late. I was kind of upset about that until I realized I’d probably still make it in for the last half of the show. . . made it to the Alchemist 15 minutes into Alex Grindeland’s stand-up show . . . I’d gone from a drama in Riverwest written by a socialist to Bay View to see comedy by a Libertarian who has fiscally conservative slogans on his facebook profile.   Grindeland's politics don't really figure into his comedy, I just like the sound of that . . . the juxtaposition of it. The night opens with socialist drama and ends with light comedy by a libertarian. Weird.

Alex Grindeland

Having missed the first portion of Grindeland’s show, I missed the musical portion of it. Luckily, I seemed to have caught the entire non-musical comedy portion of the show. (Before I go any further, I should point out that I’m largely sick to death of stand-up. In the early ‘90’s when I was moving from Junior High School to High School . . . I ended up watching a lot of Comedy Central. At the time, they didn’t have much programming . . . mostly it was just stand-up. Hours and hours of stand-up. There were a couple of years in there where I was watching stand-up every day of the week . . . and there’s a certain style and a certain delivery common to most stand-up that is boring, predictable and tragically unfunny. If you watch enough of it, EVERY stand-up sounds lie a hack. As a result, I only tend to find people with a unique style of presentation funny. Like any kind of writing, if you find your own voice, it ends up being better than the formless mass of people trying to be funny like everyone else.

Steven Wright and Charles Fleischer have ended up being favorites of mine, but some of the funniest people I’ve ever seen onstage don’t really even consider themselves stand-ups. Native Milwaukee poet Matt Cook is immensely funny onstage, but he considers himself to be a poet. I had the pleasure of seeing him perform in a number of east side bars in the mid to late ‘90’s . . . amazing stuff. And, oddly enough, both of the other people I remember doing comedy on the poetry circuit back then ended up having regular columns in the Shepherd  before moving to the East Coast in the late-‘90’s-–Sean McNally and Jennifer Knox . . .Cook, McNally and Knox were all very, very funny people because their style wasn’t stand-up. People can say funny things into a microphone and do stand-up without “doing the stand-up thing.” That’s when it’s good for me. Of course, there are a lot of people out there who like Jerry Seinfeld and there’s something to be said for being commercially funny . . . )

Anyway . . . disclaimer out of the way, I kind of liked the libertarian’s comedy. It was largely apolitical. Yes, he did the “stand-up thing,” but he has a really charming stage presence that’s not at all pretentious. That goes a hell of a long way for me. If you have a generally good impression of someone doing comedy onstage, you WANT them to be funny. For the better part of an hour, Grindeland did a brief survey in a number of topics. He started strong with a bit about killing mythical creatures . . . which could’ve been expanded without going into extended bit about  giving apples to a doctor to keep it away (that was a bit weak.) The killing of mythical creatures segued into a very obvious bit of comedy about a bucket of water and the Wizard of Oz . . . which is a classy, old joke but not terribly funny. The movie humor that followed the Oz bit wasn’t terribly timely. The idea of Hotel Rwanda For Dogs was actually kind of a clever premise that could be elaborated, but already feels kind of dated.

Much  of the weaker stuff that Grindeland did could’ve been aided with more dynamic delivery, but a more polished, glibber performance probably would’ve cost him a great deal of charm . . . which would be at odds with his own personal voice. Overall, the magical kind of glib that makes humorous stuff laugh-out-loud funny was kind of illusive to Grindeland . . . there’s some really humorous stuff here, but it’s not framed in a way that necessarily results in laughter . . . until the end.

Grindeland’s performance ended with material about teaching drama to school kids. He’s a young drama teacher and his material about teaching drama is unique, effortless and effortlessly funny. THAT material, which consisted of an all-too-brief anecdotal narrative, had a kind of freshness to it that the rest of his material lacked. Grindeland has real, commercial potential as a stand-up and he’s probably going to need to hone-in on those aspects of his act that make him unique in order to achieve that success. He’s on the right track with the drama teacher material. As witnessed in his work with local improv group Meanwhile, he’s got good comic instincts. Following those instincts are going to be absolutely crucial to his unique comic voice. Of course, that’s my opinion and I don’t like 90% of contemporary stand-up comics who are successful, so I’m probably not the person to be taking advice from. It should be pointed out that while the audience wasn’t erupting with laughter the way I’d seen Matt Cook managing nearly every time he’s taken the stage, the audience really seemed to enjoy the show. And ultimately that’s more important than anything else.

 

Here's the closing bit of Grindeland's act as seen on YouTube:

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