Wednesday, June 12, 2013

"Me Rich, You Learn" (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

My second foray into the 2013 Fringe Theatre Festival here in Los Angeles has the rather strident title Me Rich, You Learn.

The title comes from a (fictional) seminar, run by a former millionaire as part of his community service in the wake of a conviction for tax fraud. Remember, the IRS are the ones who got Capone. Here is how the press release describes it:

Former millionaire and convicted tax evader T.R. Hamer has his world re-collapse while attempting to do an IRS-mandated community service show. En route to rock bottom number two, and despite the efforts of Senior IRS agent Martin Almond, TR proceeds to rewrite the show, sad-eat a pile of marshmallows, crawl into a bag, and fall in love a bunch of times while threatening suicide. From within the madness, TR begins to suspect that his “tormentor” Martin Almond might be the only thing propping him up.

With respect, this doesn't quite give the right impression. But then, it kinda/sorta presumes one has heard of the production company, The Four Clowns. Herein lies the key to understanding--and thereby fully enjoying--the play.

It is a clown show.

Forget stereotypes and think of genuine clowns we've seen (other than Ronald McDonald--he's a corporate mascot really). Pennywise from Stephen King's IT! Or Emmett Kelly. The clown pieces that form part of different shows in Cirque du Soleil. They blend the dreamlike, the surreal, the use of masks all in a kind of distorted mirror held up to some facet of life.

So too Me Rich, You Learn. Which is not as it turns out about money per se at all. Nor capitalism. Like a funhouse mirror, you go in expecting one thing and discover something else. T.R.Hamer and IRS agent Martin Almond appear first amid a glimpse of the weird but still possible. Barely. Then it spirals into an Alice-like Rabbit Hole of the mind, as we laugh as a strange reality that somehow continues to feel possible long after the laws of the physical universe have been left behind.

At heart are the characters. Hamer remains a showman--a sexist, greedy, enraged man who's lost everything in the wake of breaking the rules then getting caught. Yet he remains human, remains someone just trying to get by and deal with the garish, humiliating show the IRS has cooked up for him to do. Who designed the show? We're never told, but it seems likely his keeper/parole officer/guy friday Martin Almond had something to do with it. Such an odd man, that. Limbs too long, eyes too sunken, teeth a little too big--he seems a nerd of the first order but who cares about Hamer. More maybe than Hamer does himself. Within that context we get a series of events as the two try and hold the seminar--complete with some very strange, even tacky ideas of show bizz--while both start coming apart under the stress.

Like I said--a clown show. A rather long clown show. With far more dialogue than one usually expects. But the physical humor, the pulling in of the audience, the increasingly elaborate use of props (including the characters' clothes) all make for a show that only lacks a car the size of a lunch box to gush forth a few dozen brightly colored figures in greasepaint.

This has the opposite effect. We have been invited inside that car. But don't realize it until later.

Not to everyone's taste, of course. But I got something out of it, including more than a few laughs (if you doing comedy and don't get laughs, then you're doing it wrong). I will say that Adam Carpenter seems to succeed at achieving the surreality of his character and the story a little bit better than his partner, Zach Steel--this despite the fact they wrote it together (and kudos to them on that point). But that remains a nuance. Quite simply, Carpenter's Almond comes across as more extreme from his entrance than Steel's Hamer ever quite achieves.  The straight man (Almond) with this kind of thing should probably (I only say probably) seem the more normal, at first.

Like I said, a nuance.

You can see Me Rich, You Learn at The Open Fist Theatre (6209 Santa Monica Blvd. Los Angeles, CA 90038), the 6 performances continue through June 29 on Thursday, June 13 @ 8pm, Friday, June 21 @ 9pm, Saturday, June 22 @ 5pm, Friday June 28 @ 11pm and Saturday, June 29 @ 10pm.

1 comment:

Shachi Sharma said...
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