Amateur Hour at the 2014 Minnesota Fringe Festival made me laugh. A lot. And loudly! More than any other performance in a long time.
The show was presented by English Scrimshaw Theatrical Novelties, a local theater company that calls its productions “a jaunty assortment of live presentations designed to amuse even the most recalcitrant of theater goers.”
It was a clever blend of sketch comedy, dance, mime, humorous monologue, music, and improvisation.
The program began with three performers standing far downstage, each illuminated by spotlight.
With the mildly dissonant, melancholy sounds of Erik Satie’s “Three Gymnopédies” as ambiance, each took a turn reading a poem they composed in their youth.
Their poems were perfectly awkward reminders of every cringe-worthy stage of my own personal and artistic development. And, they were hilarious: a young lady’s haiku about Saint John the Baptist, an adolescent boy’s musings on “the scent of an audience,” and a 17-year-old’s reflections on the “beautiful angel” in his bed.
Is it lucky or unfortunate that these three have pieces of their history crystallized in verse?
Lucky, I think. It makes for great theater.
As the program continued, performers shared more uncomfortable moments from their formative years.
Veteran Twin Cities dancer and choreographer Adrienne English presented her childhood self’s choreographic vision of Aquarius — as inspired by the film Hair. Four lively dancers, dressed in go-go boots, bell bottoms, and short, printed dresses made a colorful backdrop for English.
Though the movement vocabulary and spatial arrangements were by no means virtuosic, the section was clearly structured and well rehearsed. The performers’ comedic delivery of the movement was consistent and they incorporated their facial expressions brilliantly, which made the dance successful as a whole.
English returned to the stage later in the program to present a piece of choreography that she allegedly used to audition for the California Institute of the Arts in the 80s.
This time, however, she performed the piece as a duet, dancing with an audience volunteer who, purportedly, was not associated with the performance. The volunteer did a suspiciously good job at mirroring English’s movements. Was he an audience plant?
Overall, this second dance section struck me as less genuine than the first, and therefore less engaging.
Joe Bozic and Mike Fotis, better known as Twin Cities improv and sketch duo Ferrari McSpeedy, were a brilliant addition to the program.
People in the Twin Cities seem to love improv comedy. They have multiple theaters dedicated exclusively to this sort of work and much of the performance I have seen incorporates it somehow.
Having seen a lot more of it in the last two months than ever before, I have to admit that I have been won over. I love it now as well because the process is accessible to an audience — even though we aren’t up onstage, we are actively engaged with the performers.
Improvised dance is different.
Unless a dancer makes it clear that improvisation is happening, their process is less accessible to the audience. Even when the audience knows that improvisation is happening, and even if that audience is composed entirely of dancers, the experience of watching feels far more passive.
Perhaps dancers could learn something from improv comedians to help engage dance audiences more.
Engagement was one of Amateur Hour’s strengths. The show invited everyone — performers and audience member alike — to stop taking themselves so seriously. Whoopee cushion jokes were funny. Even I thought so. And I have a tendency to write off bathroom humor altogether.
The performers’ friendly, almost familiar, delivery made listening to their sometimes too long monologues pleasant.
Kirsten Stephens’ mime section was the only part of Amateur Hour that lost me. She began by telling the audience how she got her start as a mime — in her church, acting out religious songs, often times in the role of a demon. Stephens said, during those church performances, she dreamed of presenting the Looney Tunes version of the story-song instead. So, that night, she would fulfill her dream and perform for us one of the religious story-songs from years ago, Looney-Tunes style.
I was expecting a song. But a male narrator told a story with music in the background. His voice did not follow a melodic line and there was no indication of a rhythmic link between the music and the words.
I was also expecting a lot more Looney Tunes. Stephens did convey Bugs Bunny a few times. But most of her movements ranged between ‘movie theater’ and ‘popcorn’ — perhaps someone watching Looney Tunes? — and feigned boxing.
And, I found myself wondering whether Stephens was costumed and, if so, why her hairstyle, stage makeup, and ensemble was significantly less elaborate than the comedians’ and dancers.’
Aspects of Amateur Hour hinted that certain cast members considered themselves to be ineffective performing artists. Other elements alluded to the possibility that these performers pursued theater as an unpaid, side gig.
My overall sense was that the group was engaging, experienced, and professional. Perhaps they were performing purely for the love of it, but the cast members of Amateur Hour were in fact skilled amateurs.