One of the nicest benefits of this Playlist editing gig is that I’ve seen more theater this year than ever before in my life. I know I’ve still seen only a sliver of what many of my colleagues have, but I'm still working with a much broader palette than I have in the past. As I've borne witness to drama, comedy, puppetry, politics, musicals, dance, monologues, slideshows, improv, experimentation and more, I've been endlessly impressed by the sheer volume of art available to us Twin Citians. Call me a Minnesota jingoist, but I'll be damned if I can think of many better places to be an art lover.
All of that variety makes it difficult for me to pinpoint my top moment of the theater season. When the field runs the gamut from the metafictional machinations of Alan Berks' Six Characters in Search of an Author to the downbeat dance of Thread Dance Project's A Woman's Works to the full-bore, fearless slapstick of Dean Holt's performance in If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, pegging a favorite is a tall order.
But since I'm tasked with making a choice, I have to say the moment that's stuck with me the most was from the Fringe performance of Four Humors' Lolita: A Three-Man Show. I got to the show late and thus wound up in the nosebleed section of Illusion Theater's auditorium-style seating. I didn’t figure that would be much of a problem with a show as language-based as I assumed Lolita would be. And yet the moment that stuck with me wasn’t verbal at all. It wasn’t even a gesture. It was a look.
I reckon a little bit of back story is necessary. The play features a three-man cast playing a trio of enthusiastic but dimwitted film buffs re-enacting Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film adaptation of Lolita with Ryan Lear as James Mason/Humbert Humbert, Brant Miller as Sue Lyon/Dolores Haze and Matt Spring as everybody else, including Shelly Winters and Peter Sellers. As I wrote in my Fringe blog, I was initially chilly to the play’s broader comic sensibilities but eventually came around to appreciating its clever commentary on artistic authorship and audience expectations. Most of what I liked about the show was summed up in one moment of physical comedy that was barely even physical.
Among Spring’s stable of supporting characters is a handyman with a penchant for rambling exposition. His grandiose monologues, which have little to no bearing on the action at hand, are plenty funny on their own, but what makes the character a masterpiece of grotesquerie is Spring’s weird choice to keep his hands constantly fluttering while he speaks. This apparently involuntary affliction is the kind of maneuver that first makes the audience wonder what the hell this guy is up to and then slowly draws out the laughter as the crowd realizes there is no explanation, only absurdity.
Funny as Spring's sight gag is, it's Lear's reaction that truly sealed the show as one of my favorites. While most of the eyes were presumably on Spring's aimless gesticulation, mine were zeroed in on Lear's face. For almost the entirety of his scenes opposite the handyman he simply stared, wide-eyed, tight-lipped and dumbstruck, at those flailing hands. It was the expression of a man too put-off by a speaker's mannerisms to register his words, but more than that, it was precisely the expression I'd expect to see on the face of someone playing James Mason playing Humbert Humbert in that exact situation. Up until that moment it never would have occurred to me that there even was a facial expression to match that description (and I can't imagine why that would have occurred to me), but there it was, gloriously evident even from my perch up near the rafters.
It takes a rare kind of comic gift to layer that much into a single look, and pulling it off in front of a live audience without the benefit of multiple takes is all the more impressive. It's the type of thing that made Bill Hader one of Saturday Night Live's all-time great utility players. Even when Hader wasn't a key player in a sketch, his uniquely expressive face could usually be counted upon to carry more than its share of the comedy without distracting focus from the central action. There are plenty of otherwise exceptional actors who can't say the same. (James Mason himself, for instance – I recently watched his inexplicable performance as a Chinese-Mexican crime lord in the equally inexplicable The Yin and the Yang of Mr. Go and was dismayed at how often he made himself look ridiculous when he could just as easily have gone sublime.)
I give kudos across the board to Four Humors and their smarter-than-it-seems take on Lolita. It's a production that could easily have a long life in a number of venues, and I'd love to see it again. But if I have to narrow down my year of theater-going to a single favorite moment, that Ryan Lear/James Mason/Humbert Humbert stare is the image that stands out. And in a play filled with onstage costume changes, faux-Shelly Winters histrionics and Brant Miller in a bikini top, that says something.