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Louis CK in Portland Review

February 1, 2011 1 comment
Louis CK

Louis CK

“I know that things will probably never get better than this and I’m ok with that” – it wasn’t a boastful exclamation from one of the hottest contemporary comedians, but more an admission that Louis CK‘s popularity is unusually strong. With his self titled show a hit on FX and concert film “Louis CK: Hilarious” making the rounds online,  Louis CK has built a very strong following, putting him on par with many of the top stand-up comedians performing today. Selling out two back-to-back shows at the Aladdin Theater in Portland, Louis CK  tickets sold for hundreds of dollars on Craigslist and had people waiting in line around the block from the Aladdin Theater.

Louis CK’s charm is that he simply isn’t charming.  Most comedians want to connect with their audience, compliment their city and make them feel welcome.  Louis CK dispels all this pretense and simply says what he thinks and what he feels.  This naked approach results in a show that is constantly fresh and alive.   I’ve seen much of Louis CK’s work, including his entire series and recent concert film, and the set he did at the Aladdin didn’t repeat a single joke from any of it.  To have an entire show of completely new material is a real delight, and some jokes, including a riff on Sarah Palin, seemed to come right off the cuff during the set. Read more…

Categories: Comedy Tags: , ,

Bob Saget in Portland – A Review

December 13, 2009 No comments
Bob Saget

Bob Saget

Many people may still see Bob Saget as Danny Tanner, the wholesome Dad from the late 80’s and early 90’s sitcom Full House. Or perhaps they see him as the goofy host of America’s Funniest Home Videos. However, if those people were to catch Bob Saget doing standup they’d realize he’s actually one of the dirtiest comedians performing today. Saget plays a lot with these clashing perceptions in very much the same way a five year old takes pleasure in saying the word ‘shit’. It’s a mix of shock, amusement and perhaps delight in shaking people’s perceptions.

Saget embraces his dirty side right off the bat, joking about his love life and the possible paternity connection to some of the people in the audience. Saget spends a lot of time poking fun at himself and his own image, even telling a story about how someone yelled “I suck dick for coke” to him while he was spending time with his mom. He follows with a volley of dick jokes, the rapid fire approach finding some hitting their mark and some missing, but Sagat is cool, comfortable and at ease as he lobs his jokes into the audience.. The first part of Saget’s show felt very alive and unstructured and featured a lot of off the cuff and improvised material. Many of the evening’s funniest moments came out of this part of the show and his unrehearsed interactions with the audience. I enjoyed the fact that Saget’s opening was all over the place. For a comedian who has been around quite a long time it’s great to experience their raw sense of humor, something that is much more alive than the general schtick that they become known for.

After Saget was done playing with the audience, he moved into a segment of jokes that came from his father Benjamin Saget. In both a tribute to his dad and an explanation of “why I’m like this”, Saget told a number of wonderful and charming dirty jokes.

Picking up a guitar, Saget transitioned from telling jokes to singing them and he played several humorous songs to the audience, many of which he’s performed on his HBO special or on TV. My favorites of his songs were “My Dog Licked My Balls“, “Old English Folk Song” and “Danny Tanner Was Not Gay” (which he closed his show with).

In all Saget delivered a really solid night of comedy. His complete comfort and ease on stage and his wonderfully dirty sense of humor are an absolute delight to watch. I liked how Saget moved through different styles of comedy and seemed to be genuinely enjoying himself onstage. Unfortunately, Saget’s opener, Ryan Stout, was the opposite of Saget, with humor overly contrived and uncomfortable. Stout seemed to be trying to play in the same space that Michael Ian Black does but without the charm. Stout does a have a sharp sense of humor, but  he needs to find a way to be more authentic with his routine and material and perhaps learn some ease from Saget. (Also, an opening act shouldn’t keep checking his watch – it’s bad form).

For more info on Bob Saget:

Categories: Comedy Tags: , ,

Portland Center Stage Ragtime Review

October 12, 2009 1 comment
Gavin Gregory in Portland Center Stage's Ragtime

Gavin Gregory in Portland Center Stage's Ragtime

Portland Center Stage didn’t take the easy road in selecting Ragtime for their 2009-2010 season. Ragtime is a huge production, with a large cast, quickly changing scenes and children who play two key singing roles. Given the complexity and scale of the show, it’s a little surprising that a regional theater company would try to tackle such a large production, especially in a recession when production funds don’t flow as freely.

Director Chris Coleman seems aware of the issues of scale in his production of Ragtime and places his trust in his performers and their ability to come together to fill in the spaces where set pieces and backdrops would traditionally be. At first I didn’t like the stark staging of Portland Center Stage’s Ragtime. G.W. Mercier’s design consists of a bare patterned wood floor, a few chairs and four massive swinging doors that open and close throughout the production. That’s it. As the production rolled on I found that I did really warm to the set, due in large part to the phenomenal lighting design and pitch-perfect staging of the actors. By the middle of the first act I found myself completely lost in the world of Ragtime.

In addition to the phenomenal lighting, a lot of credit goes to the performers, who absolutely commit to seeing and interacting with objects that aren’t there on stage. There’s one moment when actor Gavin Gregory (who plays Coalhouse Walker) sits down to play at an invisible piano that is truly magical. There’s no doubt that he’s playing piano, it’s just not there. As the production progresses there are a number of pretty sophisticated transitions which happen seamlessly – no small feat when you have twenty four people on stage.

One of the reasons Ragtime has such a large cast is that it is much more a portrait of a period in American history than a conventional narrative. At its core is a story of a Ragtime piano player and the struggles surrounding the woman he loves, but the show uses this main throughline to tell dozens of little stories. Terrence McNally does a fantastic job pulling E.L. Doctorow’s novel together for the stage. All the right pieces are there to present a mural of a pivotal time of change in history. Unfortunately the lyrics aren’t as strong as the adaptation.

There are some strong moments musically in Ragtime, especially when the ensemble come together and their interweaving narrative threads unite into a single chorus and there are at least two solo numbers which are strong enough to bring down the house (one performed by Gavin Gregory and the other by Susannah Mars). But none of the songs get stuck in your head and I can’t see myself humming anything from Ragtime anytime soon.

In terms of the performance, there’s a lot to like about Portland Center Stage’s Ragtime. Most notably is Gavin Gregory who is the absolute stand out of this cast. Gregory brings such an amazing emotional presence to stage and is so vocally talented that it’s impossible not to be captivated. I’d recommend running out to see this production of Ragtime for Gregory’s performance alone. He’s that good. Ragtime is an ensemble piece and while Gregory is the standout there are a number of other extremely strong performances including Susannah Mars who is excellent, Danny Rothman who does a tremendous job with a role that could have easily fallen into the background, and Alex Thede, a sixth grader who is an absolute inspiration to any young aspiring actor or actress.

The only performance I didn’t care for was Leif Norby who is horribly miscast as Tateh, an immigrant from Latvia who comes to America to find a better life. Norby, decked out in a horridly fake beard, does a caricature of an immigrant that is cartoonish and amateurish. His character goes through a transformation in the show that is played so rough by Norby that it’s completely lost, and the following duet between Leif Norby and Susannah Mars is the real low point of the show. The only saving grace of Tateh’s storyline is Anna Jane Bishop who plays Tateh’s daughter. While she doesn’t have a lot of lines, Bishop’s stage presence is extremely strong, especially for a ten year old.

Norby aside, the production of Ragtime in its entirely is really something to experience. Director Chris Coleman has demonstrated with Ragtime how a regional theater can tackle a very ambitious production intelligently, thoughtfully and skillfully. There are a lot of choices out there for Portland Center Stage to select from and I’m very pleased to see them aim high and tackle something that other theater companies might dismiss as ‘too big’ or ‘too complex’ for a regional theater.

Ragtime is a very satisfying evening of theater, and when you add Gavin Gregory and his performance to that mix it makes it an evening of theater not to be missed.

For more information on Portland Center Stage’s production of Ragtime:

Categories: Theater Tags: , ,

Josh Kornbluth's Ben Franklin: Unplugged – Reviewed

October 7, 2009 No comments
Josh Kornbluth - Ben Franklin: Unplugged

Josh Kornbluth - Ben Franklin: Unplugged

History is an interesting animal, in some ways it is like a dinosaur. We can look at the bones of the once mighty dinosaurs and pontificate: How did it live? What did it look like? What might its life been like? With more contemporary history we often have the luxury of texts, letters, documents or diaries to refer back to. But there will always gaps between the bones to fill in and moments that were never recorded or are lost. The telling of these stories often speak volumes about the person telling the story, who can’t help but bring their bias and perspectives to the telling. Perhaps this is why it makes sense for an autobiographical monologist to explore the world of biography in the telling the story of “the first American”, Benjamin Franklin.

For Josh Kornbluth, the story of Ben Franklin, his relationship with his son and his complicated position in history is an ideal canvas to express and explore Kornbluth’s own life and relationships both to his father and history. These themes run thorough out much of Kornbluth’s autobiographical work and so it’s no surprise that they are present here. What is a surprise is how Kornbluth ultimately sets aside his own narrative in service of the greater story of Benjamin Franklin. It’s a pretty huge step for someone who has spent the majority of his career in the autobiographical space and it shows that Kornbluth has an immense maturity as an artist and an enormous amount of trust in his material.

Josh Kornbluth’s Benjamin Franklin: Unplugged begins with Kornbluth reenacting the day he discovered he bore a striking resemblance to Benjamin Franklin and then follows an adventure into Kornbluth learning more about the historical figure. That adventure is extraordinarily entertaining and Kornbluth feels a lot like a slightly nerdy Jewish Robert Langdon in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (with out all the car chases and murder mystery).

Through out the piece we learn a tremendous amount about Benjamin Franklin as Kornbluth literally wrestles with the fact and fiction surrounding one of the most recognizable figures in American history. For fans of American history this show is a literalsmorgasbord, an immense feast of knowledge and insight that will leave even the most ardent history buff spinning. But the piece doesn’t work because it’ll thrill history buffs, it works because it’ll thrill those who aren’t particularly enamored with history. Kornbluth manges to make the world of one of our founding fathers come alive and contextualizes it in a way that makes it exciting and entertaining. He literally dusts off the history books and shows the humanity contained within. Merging that narrative with his own he creates an evening that is extraordinarily entertaining.

In the case of Benjamin Franklin: Unplugged, entertaining doesn’t always mean funny. Many contemporary monologists use humor extensively as their conduit to entertaining the audience. Here the occasional quip feels extemporaneous as Josh moves beyond humoring us to truly fascinating us. By conjuring up a cast of very real characters, both from history and from Josh’s own life, Kornbluth takes us on an incredible adventure and he does this as a single performer on a lightly dressed stage.

For me it’s exciting to see the art of monologue grow in this way. I grew up on tales from Spalding Grey who sat behind a simple desk with a glass of water and his notes. That’s the image I’ve always had of monologue. Josh Kornbluth explores the possibilities of this art form with a set, props and staging. In the second act of the piece he emerges dressed in costume as Benjamin Franklin and the impact of that is considerable.

Benjamin Franklin: Unplugged is utterly entertaining, it brings Benjamin Franklin to life in a way no ‘reenactment’ could. By making the story of such an iconographic historical figure personal Josh Kornbluth inspires the audience to connect to history in their own way, to look beyond the commemorative poster of historical figures the into the real people behind them.

Josh Kornbluth’s Benjamin Franklin: Unplugged runs at Portland Center Stage Oct 1- November 22nd.

For more information on Josh Kornbluth’s Benjamin Franklin: Unplugged:

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