As a teacher of solo performance, I make it a point to see lots of solo shows, and in so doing I find that many solo shows are still, despite technological advances that allow us to access so many rich options, literal, self-indulgent, focused on the sharing of traumas, and blind to the experience of the audience. The motto still seems to be “just express yourself in a straightforward manner and get everything off your chest” with the hidden culmination of that motto “then bask in the pity (or disdain) of the audience.” I find that approach to be self-centered and devoid of one simple ingredient: “time equity.”
It seems to me that a playwright’s goal should always be to ensure that a minute spent in the theater is worth more to an audience than a minute spent outside of the theater doing something else. People only have so many minutes to work, study, sleep, eat, drink, read, create, converse, play with children, pets and lovers, etc. So, to ask an audience to spend an hour or two in the grip of a play should be worth the audience’s expenditure of time. An audience should leave feeling changed in some way, or they should at least be grateful for the experience.
One reason why people love books and movies so much (indulge me while I state the obvious) is that the reader or viewer is afforded the opportunity to go on a journey and learn valuable life lessons in less time than it would take to go on that journey and learn those lessons firsthand. The reader gets to live the protagonist’s life without having to spend time living the protagonist’s life.
Books and movies have this so-called time equity, and, therefore, so should plays. Whether solo or ensemble, plays should be teeming with loads of bang for ticking-clock buck.
In the spirit of time equity, and in allowing you, the reader, to glean a bit of info on two plays at once -- two plays that are currently playing in LA, with the latter a solo play and the first an ensemble -- I share with you my two pence on how many minutes each of these two plays is worth.
Phil Olson’s “Mom’s Gift,” which is a dramedy and hence a departure for playwright Olson, who usually writes broad Minnesota-themed comedies, is about a dead mother who haunts her daughter so that the daughter might alter her life plan. The play lobs back and forth between sitcom-esque comedic and heartfelt and sincere, which is a back and forth that I did not, personally, always enjoy. But my own occasional humbug was offset by the women in the row before me who were clearly quite moved. These women sobbed and wiped their eyes and were noticeably changed (and therefore likely grateful because who doesn’t appreciate a good catharsis?). But it wasn’t just the women in front of me who were moved and changed and grateful. I heard guffaws and sniffles throughout the theater. The majority of the audience, in fact, seemed to feel that their time spent with “Mom’s Gift” was time well spent.
In contrast, Christopher Vened’s one-man piece “Human Identity” was a colossal time suck. Vened’s overly literal pontification about what it means to be human was, and is, a pseudo-intellectual lecture with a side of poorly executed mime. (Vened should refresh his skills with some Groundlings or iO West improv classes where the miming is much more detailed.) Vened’s lecture is an attempt at teaching the audience what it means to be human. The writer-performer’s thick European accent, which might be otherwise endearing, does nothing, here, to mediate his self-congratulatory and arrogant tone.
Vened spends close to half of his (and the audience’s) time teaching the audience how humans compare to primates. In Vened’s quest to compare humans to primates (to what I end I never fully fathomed), he mimes chimps doing various human things, the particulars of which worked that night to deeply insult this particular human. As Vened mimed chimps serving food and wine, painting interior and exterior walls, gardening and landscaping, and as Vened said aloud that we can teach chimps to do all kinds of manual labor, suggesting that such labor doesn’t require much human skill or intellect, this human wanted to roar like a lion. Is Vened suggesting that the working class in general, and day laborers in particular, are really nothing more than chimps?
I was so offended that I almost left but didn’t because reviewers are not to leave in the middle of a play. Plus, I was curious to see if this nightmare (assuming chimps like me have dreams) would get worse, which is did. Vened mock chimped and mock primped and said at one point that his favorite animal to impersonate is a bird. Then he pretended he was a bird, after which point, I, for one, wanted him to flutter and fly right out of there, preferably into a closed multi-pane window.
My guest also seemingly wanted Vened to fly out and into a window. At one point she leaned in and whispered to me, “Oh, my God. This is the worst!” Indeed. And, therefore, perhaps, totally worth the time. One thing that makes a bad play worth the expenditure of time is the fact that it can afterward be held up as an example of what not to do. Vened’s “Human Identity” might therefore be “Vened’s Gift.”
Phil Olson’s “Mom’s Gift," directed by Sherry Netherland, plays presently a the Lonny Chapman, via a recent extension, through February 2. Christopher Vened’s one-man debacle “Human Identity," directed by no one, shows Sundays at the Lounge through February 9.
Spend time, yourself, seeing them, and then comment below about whether they were worth the time.