Fearlessly funny

March 23, 2008

What does it take to be really funny onstage? Two very different performances made me think about this question: Christopher Barksdale of Kansas City Ballet, and David Neumann in Adrienne’ Truscott’s genesis, no!

    Kansas City Ballet recently brought a triple bill to the Joyce that included Donald McKayle’s new Hey-Hay, Going to Kansas City. In one scene two men are trying to get it on with one woman, and they are all dead drunk. Barksdale does drunk so thoroughly you think he might fall off the stage. His waving spine, his rubbery legs, his bobbing head seem totally out of control. And yet you know that a sophisticated dance mind/body is making all this waywardness this happen. What Barksdale understands about humor is that you have to throw every inch of your self into it, hook, line, and sinker. You have to go all the way. So it’s almost a little dangerous to watch.

    Adrienne Truscott’s rerun of genesis, no! at DTW is funny from the very start when a tall, nerdy “Adam” (Neal Medlyn) comes out to play a recorder, wearing only red-framed glasses and a diaper-like loincloth. He’s funny because there’s a gap between what he is acting and the way he is moving. But I want to talk about David Neumann, partly because I’m more familiar with him as a performer, and partly because his brand of humor seems to require a very specific skill. Even in stillness, portraying some kind of duck hunter on display in this loony piece, his presentation is so complete that your eyes lock into the figure he cuts. Later he tries to open a closet and things fall on him; he thrashes around, hitting the door, the coat rack, and generally causing a clattering chaos. His actions looked so real, so rash, so like life interrupted and yet so precise that it made me think of Donald O’Connor in that wonderful routine “Make ’Em Laugh” in Singing in the Rain. What Neumann understands about humor is that it depends on a very small something that we usually try to keep at bay, a tiny germ of absurdity that’s perhaps inherent in effort of any kind. And Neumann has a gift for demonstrating that this existential absurdity is simply a result of human striving.