July 2005  | This Issue

Ned Bobkoff
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 Squeeze Box

T
he Downstairs Cabaret Theatre in Rochester, New York has a reputation of staging popular entertainment, fluff like "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change!" (now in its 5th year). It's what keeps the theatre alive. No one can fault them on that. DCT now has 3 small theatres, set up spelunker style, and volunteer community support. Frequently they bring in a solo performer. Someone who will give the limited spaces more bounce to the ounce. Squeeze Box is like "I Love You, You're Imperfect, Stick To It, You've Got No Other Choice". 

I am tempted to say writer/performer Ann Randolph has a rubber face. In reality her face works like a pivotal mask. She flips one character into the next, with a turn of the head. The characters she creates spring out from ground floor believability. An hour and 15 minute set of stories, with a guitar and banjo added, are taken from Randolph's work in a "the graveyard shift at a homeless shelter for mentally ill women".   

Unlike a stand up comic (one of her many skills), she never puts a human dilemma to rest. Beneath her achingly funny and inspired monologues, a sad enveloping journey takes place. A journey that brings complex dimensions into her work. What seems like a joke turns into a confession. A confession then stretches into a thin line struggle between reality, illusion and misplaced idealism. "So, how did you become homeless", becomes "how did you become residentially challenged?" Randolph's delivery is short, precise, funny, even hilarious; dirty, sad, existential to the core. Eventually she  transforms into one of the homeless; not only in spirit, but in circumstance. And that gives her humor ground floor believability.    

A lot of snap shots come out of this locale of trashed souls,  including a picture of Randolph: who she was, who she became, and how she acquired the traits of those she worked with. Starting out as a do-gooder, Randolph landed flat on her back on a "rollaway bed of pissed stained blankets". She had to ask herself: "Do I have anything to give that anyone wants?" And "what am I doing here, if I haven't got the answer?" She found herself wanting her life to change. Unlike many in the shelter who had long given up on that precious commodity.       

Brandy, a flamboyant, bottom-of-the-line crack head, is the performer's most striking creation. Wildly robust sisterhood laughter; laughter that turns events upside down at the drop of a coin. Brandy tells you exactly what you don't want to hear for a price. Her  flamboyant, wise cracking, doppelganger comments, rolled out from inside a cracker jack box, in a whirligig of legs and arms, flailing every which way at once, are hilarious, crushingly honest, appalling, and cunning - simultaneously.  She doesn't give a shit about what you think. And she loves to play around with the so-called well intended who come to save the likes of her. Especially the Jesus lady, with one of those grinding other-worldly smiles that come across like a plague of self delusion. "Everyone has a gift", the Jesus lady says, "and its our duty to use this gift and share it with others. You can do anything, if you have enough faith. If you don't get what you want, its because you don't have enough faith". Brandy retorts, at the top of her lungs, cigarette in hand, her legs akimbo, with an amazingly wild expression on Randolph's face: "I have a gift that I like to share with others. I can suck cock better than anyone else. If you want to know how, that costs extra!" Huge laugh from the audience. Whether your down and out, or on top of it, its all the same: money rules the day. The audience recognizes a true believer when they see one.   

Randolph falls in love with Harold, the "accordionist". Harold has an absolutely blank expression on his face. No matter what he says his expression never changes. You can put anything into it that you want to see. And when Harold gets Randolph off by sucking on her toes, after hiking up to the top of a mountain, the bottom drops out. When Randall goes to Harold's accordion concert, it becomes an unexpected revelation. In the background, we hear Harold playing, on his accordion, in a beautiful symphonic mode, the adagio from Aaron Copeland's "Appalachian Spring"; or was it "Theme For the Common Man"?  Randolph suddenly sees an apparition in silhouette on a stained glass window where the concert is being held. The silouhette is like a  religious experience, a miracle playing on the walls of a cave.. Going outside, she finds Brandy squatting in the release position, depositing her stuff on the ground.  Randolph tries to get her out of there. "Get in the car so that I can take you back to the shelter!", she shouts. Brandy talks Randolph back into the shelter with her. Once you are in the shelter why would you want to get out? Ann Randolph declares: "I had my faith, it's the only thing I ever had." A lot of irony in that one.   

Ann Randolph became a brilliant performer, a monologist, one of the best I've seen. A script unto herself. Ann Bancroft bankrolled her tour and Mel Brooks will join her, hoping to turn Squeeze Box into a movie. How to turn an amazing monologue into a film is another matter all together. The guts are there. And the opportunity for advancement widening the locale into a broader horizon, might just work. Above all, and mostly, it's a comedy. And that's the way to stretch the limits of the thin line between reality and illusion into something that rings home. Whether you have a home or not.   

 

©2005 Ned Bobkoff
©2005 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Ned Bobkoff is a director and writer who has worked with performers from all walks of life, throughout the United States and abroad. His favorite theatre style? Theatre of Humanity: every which way and then some.  

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