BWW Reviews: Two Soloists From UNDER THE RADAR 2014
"Mother used to always say to us, 'Savannah is a trap. It'll try to imprison you. Even if you manage to get away, it will find a way to drag you back,'" recalls Edgar Oliver in a voice dripping with B-movie Southern Gothic.
Storyteller Oliver has been a well-known fixture in Gotham's downtown performing arts scene for the better part of three decades, particularly for regaling audiences with weird recollections of his childhood in Savannah, growing up with his beloved sister under the protective wing of their somewhat mad mother.
"Mother also used to say, 'Beware of other people. They won't understand you. We're different. We're artists.'"
Now in its tenth year, The Public Theater's Under The Radar Festival has been enlivening the traditionally sleepy first month of the year by granting artists such as Oliver some high-profile exposure at its Astor Place home and partnering venues.
Directed by Catherine Burns, Oliver's Helen & Edgar is a child's-eye view of an upbringing that hovers somewhere between deliciously macabre and frighteningly abusive. Living (and sleeping) together in a dilapidated, roach-infested home, mother shields her tykes from most contact with the outside world, teaching them to compliment her with daily affirmations of her maternal perfection.
Between stories of family outings and brief encounters with fellow Savannahites (one of whom asks if they're from Transylvania) projected slides present a visual of an emotionally cold homespun environment.
At 75 minutes, Oliver's verbal short story collection can seem wanting for some atmospheric variety, but he does paint a rather intriguing portrait.
As a frequently published humorist, an editor for The New York Times Magazine and a popular contributor to The Daily Show and This American Life, John Hodgman is quite a bit more on the national radar than the festival's other participants.
After a bit of audience participation and a victory lap through the house, his solo effort, I Stole Your Dad, settles into being a rather standard 90-minute set of stand-up comedy.
He removes nearly all of his many layers of clothing, explaining how each piece was free swag given to him at some media event. While explaining the similarities between watching Downton Abbey with his kids and watching Upstairs, Downstairs with his parents, he refers to both his youngsters and his elders as cats, in an attempt to heighten the amusement.
The title is presented as the kicker to a story involving a father, son and one of Tennessee's numerous state songs, which he plays on the ukulele while inviting us to sing along.
It was my first time seeing Hodgman perform and my lack of enthusiasm was no doubt eclipsed by the energetic laughter of a full house of fans that appeared to greet his insider references with delighted familiarity.