I’ve got nothing against sketch-comedy shows naming each bit with easel-mounted placards — these let us follow the program and, in the worst productions, the card stack gives us a rough idea of how much more
torture lies ahead. Nor can I think of any objection to a recurring sketch in which a bent-over actor is wheeled out with his bare buttocks, framed in a woman’s wig, forming a
monstrous face — what better way to remind us that we’re watching a spectacle called The (Magnificent) Ass Show, Maurissa Afanador’s celebration of the scatological, the silly and the plain gross. In the words of our maximum leader, “Bring ’em on!” Some highlights: A group of people sullenly plays a board game called Cunnilingus; a TV chef paralyzed with depression can barely fill air time by issuing meaningless instructions to his audience; a talking 16-pound ham tells children profoundly misanthropic stories.
The show’s got back, all right, but this San Francisco import, now at Theatre/Theater, will hardly be everyone’s cup of tea. There’s a flagrant, straws-up-the-nose childishness about the proceedings that not only can grow wearisome but also frustrates the show’s artistic reach; Afanador’s writing sometimes comes close, but she never quite provokes a laughter that is bigger than the sum of her gags. Two clowns standing on a stage can enact a fable like Waiting for Godot or they can spray seltzer water at each other for 90 minutes — Afanador settles for the seltzer. Her sketches, however, not only appeal to our prurient interests but also seem, mercifully enough, aimed at people with ADD — some whirl by with only a few words of dialogue, so they spare us the familiar pain of The Sketch That Wouldn’t End.
The numbers fall into three informal categories: social farce, smarmy farce and farty farce. Afanador comes closest to true satire in the first genre. Her delicate male college student (Avi Rothman) who denies being homosexual (that gay porn he acted in was only a job), along with a 15-year-old girl (Diza Diaz) who expresses her soul in an unintelligible hip-hop patois, and a blond cock-tease (Debbie McMahon) explaining her important role in male society — all graze the audience with the serrated edge of recognition. Even the more shticky stuff occasionally pulls a laugh from the most resistant. Who can remain unmoved by the sitcom sendup of “No Spine for Mommy,” as a completely limp Mom, her body slumped forward and head resting on a table, mumbles banalities to her kids as a laugh track bleats in the background? Or by the utter absurdity of a vaudeville entertainer (Neil Kaplan) trying to incorporate a grim-faced exile (Tate Ammons) from the Russian Revolution into his act?
Mostly, though, the evening favors the farty: Those tired sourpusses playing Cunnilingus: The Board Game who seemed doomed to eat out the same winner (Afanador) with every throw of the dice; and, of course, the ass on wheels, here named Annie Browntown, who communicates in an Esperanto of farts. (Credit Robb Mills with the sound effects, though the program notes are vague as to who exactly provides the moons for this show.) We in the audience have plenty to squirm over in these moments (not the least of which occurs when a viewer is brought onstage for a date with Miss Browntown), but you can squirm only so long before you wish you were being bored with a message.
The (Magnificent) Ass Show can’t be faulted for lack of showmanship. Its youthful ensemble seems game for anything, and director Kelvin Han Yee instills in it the importance of reacting to the situations and not to the audience reacting to the comedy. Oddly enough, though, while the show’s buzz promised a politically incorrect flavor, that taste turns out to be un-P.C. only in the very general sense that people are gleefully stereotyped.
These stereotypes, however, are the safe targets most suburban audiences would feel comfortable with — Afanador’s recurring white-trash breeder starts out promisingly enough in a scene with a talking fetus, but by show’s end her sketches (fittingly called “Perpetuating the Perpetuating Stereotype”) seem about as edgy as an old Carol Burnett Show. Likewise, the show presents a changing list of guest musicians, and while banjo player–singer Phil Van Tee, whom I saw, was pleasant enough, his barely audible ballads about William Mulholland and John Hardy are not going to win any iconoclast awards.
Afanador’s punch remains in her willingness to be gross, and the hairy-ass cartoon that hangs above the stage is a sure tip-off to her dedication. (Some of the evening’s sketches are credited to Frank Erfurth and others.) Her bio notes say she is a Northwestern alum who matriculated to both Chicago’s Second City and to Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which makes for an intriguing résumé and reflects an ongoing trend in which young and intelligent comedians are searching for lowlife inspirations in an effete country inured to shock. (Think of it: Ensemble member Courtney Fine gave up her job on NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s staff to come west to work in a show like this.)
The group’s commitment partly explains the enduring fascination that vaudeville and its stepchildren hold for boomers and Generations X and Y alike. Back in the late 1980s, Los Angeles enjoyed a somewhat subterranean outpouring of gross-out comedy, meta-Catskills standup and full-on gore with Stephen Holman’s Theatre Carnivale group and Charles Schneider’s Theatre du Grand Guignol. A few years before these outfits, the Actors Gang had begun a long run of commedia dell’arte–fueled productions inspired by vaudeville, carnies, circuses and freak shows, in which political messages were delivered amid pratfalls and loopy sound effects. Today, pastie-titted burlesque thrives in the voluptuous form of the Velvet Hammer, a local company of strippers who seem inspired in equal parts by Blaze Starr, Bettie Page and Russ Meyer; and Weimar cabaret, oh chum, can be found in the ambisexual offerings of the Bricktops club every Friday night at West Hollywood’s Parlour Club.
“Dead as vaudeville,” then, isn’t such a definite epitaph after all. There’s something vital and viral, in its brutal roundelays of digs against respectability and sexual conformity, that nourishes every insurgent generation’s ridicule of both society and its acceptable forms of entertainment. You could, if you were looking, also find in The (Magnificent) Ass Show’s balls-out vulgarity traces of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu plays and Dario Fo, but then, that may be going too far. In the end, as it were, a show in which actors pour brandy over Miss Browntown’s cheeks and light cigarettes dangerously close to her “mouth” is simply joining the Tom Greens and brothers Farrelly in a search for quick, cheap laughs, figuring the grossest is the mostest.
THE (MAGNIFICENT) ASS SHOW | By MAURISSA AFANADOR
At THEATRE/THEATER, 6425 Hollywood Blvd.; (310) 665-2963
Through September 27