Comedy is King
Here’s a look at four of the shows at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival this weekend: Rich Hall as “Otis Lee Crenshaw”; Ruben Santiago-Hudson in “Lackawanna Blues”; Dani Klein in “The Move”; and the theater presentation “Shyness Is Nice.”Rich Hall, “Otis Lee Crenshaw”Those who recall Rich Hall from his days on “Not Necessarily the News” probably recall Hall’s “sniglets” – words that aren’t in the dictionary but should be – and his snide, prickly persona. They probably wouldn’t associate Hall with Otis Lee Crenshaw, a redneck from the Tennessee backwoods, an ex-con and country music wannabe with limited musical skills.But for the past three years, Hall has spent much of his time inhabiting the skin of Otis Lee Crenshaw. And it turns out that the scraggly, out-of-touch Crenshaw isn’t so far removed from Hall himself, who has a North Carolina pedigree and a true love for country music.”Otis, I think he came about three years ago, as a result of spending time with my backwoods relatives,” said Hall, who brings Crenshaw to life as part of the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival’s Alternative program, with a performance set for today, Friday, March 1, at 10:30 p.m. at the St. Regis Aspen Ballroom. “A lot of people in my family sort of live on the outskirts of the law. So I just decided to create a single character out of all those people.Crenshaw may live on the fringes of society. He’s a beer-and-bourbon-loving, racist, serial bigamist, who has had seven wives, all named Brenda. But Crenshaw is also serious about his music, just as Hall is. Crenshaw appears with his two-piece band, the Black Liars, and much of his persona comes through in such songs as “Women Call It Stalking,” “Tonight the Malt Is Single And So Am I,” and his ode to prison rape, “He Almost Looks Like You.” Hall saw the invention of Crenshaw as not only a way to parody his relatives, but also to use his rough musical skills.”I wanted to do a show that I could incorporate music into,” said Hall. “I couldn’t write good songs. So I intentionally made a character who couldn’t make anything but bad songs.”Otis, in a nutshell, is a guy who can’t understand why people can’t relate to his songs. It’s because they were written in prison. Otis is someone who’s completely in love with country music, but hates what it’s become.”Interestingly enough, Crenshaw has been seen almost exclusively in Scotland and England. Hall has lived in London the past several years, and Crenshaw has been trotted out primarily at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where Crenshaw has been a consistent favorite. Hall has released Crenshaw in the States, but may have made a mistake in just where in the States to unveil him. “I did four days in Nashville, and got stuff thrown at us. They hated it,” said Hall, who also still does stand-up. “It was great. They were like, ‘Hey, that’s just like my brother Earl!'”Hall is grateful to the Scots not only for the reception Crenshaw has received, but for the way he was allowed to develop the show. “The club scene in the U.S. is just so fucked,” he said. “They don’t want you to do anything different. I didn’t want to do that anymore. It was a much better atmosphere in Scotland. I had a whole month to develop it there, which was great. “And now I’m mostly doing it in theaters. But it’s a grungy kind of show. I hope they put me in some kind of dive. That’s where it works best.”Ruben Santiago-Hudson, “Lackawanna Blues”The upbringing that Ruben Santiago-Hudson had, in gritty, industrial Lackawanna, N.Y., was far from the traditional family life. His drug-addicted mother couldn’t care for Santiago-Hudson; his father wasn’t a central figure in his life.Instead, Santiago-Hudson had the colorful characters – hustlers, boozers, transients, street-corner philosophers – from the boarding house where he was raised. And most and best of all, there was Aunt Rachel – forever known to Santiago-Hudson as “Nanny” – who ran the boarding house and raised little Ruben.Nanny “was closer than anybody I’ve been to my whole life,” said the 45-year-old Santiago-Hudson. “That was my mother.”Despite the hardscrabble nature of Aunt Rachel’s boarding house, Santiago-Hudson was treated there like royalty. “I was given confidence by all those people, all those ne’er-do-wells, who would tell me I was special,” he said. What seemed to be most special about Santiago-Hudson was his way with words. This, too, he credits to his early surroundings.”In my upbringing, they were always arguing, debating,” said Santiago-Hudson. “Since most of them were illiterate, they’d do everything through spoken words. And there were people who came through with guitars and songs.”Santiago-Hudson made it out of Lackawanna, and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in theater. His way with words earned him roles on television, in films, and on stages on and off Broadway. Santiago-Hudson earned a Tony Award for his work in August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars.” He has been featured on the television shows “Law & Order” and “West Wing,” and in such films as “Devil’s Advocate,” “Shaft,” and “Domestic Disturbance.”Apart from helping him earn a reputation and a living, the film work offered Santiago-Hudson time to think about his past, and to write about his upbringing. “When I’m doing film, you spend a lot of time in your trailer waiting,” he said. “When I was waiting, I was writing, thinking, remembering, putting together pieces of my life.”Santiago-Hudson began putting his life down on paper three years ago, but the process was quick. “The story’s been bounding around in my heart for so long,” he said. “It was difficult to write, especially emotionally. I’m dealing with the realities of my life – being an abandoned child, raised in a rooming house. It didn’t take long – it’s my life, my whole life.”Last year, Santiago-Hudson premiered his first piece, “Lackawanna Blues.” The sweet, touching reflection has, of course, Nanny as its central voice. But the show has Santiago-Hudson resurrecting some 20 of the figures from Nanny’s boarding house, with names like Numb Finger Pete and U-La-C. “Lackawanna Blues,” which will be performed today, Friday, March 1, at 1 p.m. at the Wheeler Opera House, has earned Santiago-Hudson two Obie Awards and rave reviews. The show, which opened last April at New York’s Joseph Papp Pubic Theater, has played in Philadelphia and Princeton, N.J., and is headed for Seattle, Boston and Los Angeles.The show, which features guitarist Bill Sims Jr. backing Santiago-Hudson, has been praised for its grateful tone. Instead of bitterness at his parents, Santiago-Hudson fills “Lackawanna Blues” with thankfulness for the support he did receive. “I make sure that I take myself away and let the story be told by the kid,” said Santiago-Hudson. “And how Nanny was – how people respected her, how she made everybody feel worthy, like they were respected.”In making his art, Santiago-Hudson says that he is drawing on not just Nanny and the people he knew at the boarding house, but on the entire African-American tradition. “African-American people are a verbal people. Their history is given orally,” he said. “It’s a long tradition that I come from. It was easy for me to tell a story. Being a storyteller is part of the fabric of who I am.”But above all, the fabric of who Santiago-Hudson is can be glimpsed in his love letter to his Nanny. “All my Nanny ever told me was, go ahead and do it,” said Santiago-Hudson. “What you really need is love, support and direction.”Dani Klein, “The Move”Dani Klein had an attachment to her New York apartment. A strong attachment. An abnormal attachment. An unhealthy attachment, as it turned out.Klein had met the man who seemed to be the man of her dreams. He lived in Los Angeles, and wasn’t about to move: “He didn’t get the charm of New York,” said Klein, a New York native who spent her childhood in Connecticut. But that shouldn’t have been much of a problem: an aspiring comedian, it made good sense for Klein to move to L.A.; she had already been spending months at a time there. But there was that New York apartment that she just couldn’t detach herself from.”I postponed the move every week for six months,” said Klein. Subletting the apartment was an option, but not an easy one: “I would have had to nurture the apartment, care for the apartment like a boyfriend. I would have had to come back and take care of it. I had to decide where to turn my energy. I decided to go with the human being.”Klein went all the way with the human being. Last October, she got married to Tod, a film editor, and did in fact move to Los Angeles and gave up the apartment. But not before squeezing every joke possible out of that apartment. Last year, Klein was in Los Angeles when she got a call from theater producer Lou Viola. Viola had gotten a taped copy of Klein’s stand-up routine.”He invited me to do an evening. He wanted me to do my show,” said Klein. “I said I don’t have a show. He said, ‘Yes, you do.’ Everyone thinks the comedian has a show. He said, ‘Of course you have a show.’ He was being aggressive.”Of course, Klein did have a show. The apartment. After Viola’s call, Klein got busy writing what would eventually be “The Move,” a one-person show that plays Saturday, March 2, at 10 p.m. at the Hotel Jerome. (Also on the bill is Tami Vernekoff’s “Tami Boy.”)”The Move” is an examination of the reasons underlying Klein’s reluctance to give up the apartment. What comes out is a desire to maintain the single-girl-in-the-city lifestyle she had led for over 10 years. Much of that has to do with Klein never having thought of herself as particularly attractive in childhood, and the resulting need for constant male attention. “One man telling me I’m attractive for the rest of my life – that’s never gonna be enough,” she says in the show. “The Move” features a pair of puppets who offer Klein conflicting advice and squabble with each other.Klein sees herself as a born comic, thanks to her outsider status. She was the only Jew in a town full of WASPs in Westport, Conn., and saw herself as a fat, self-doubting child.”I think I was a born comedian,” she said. “That’s how I look at life. Comedians are outsiders by nature. And I’m an outsider, always have been. You’re always standing outside, and commenting.”After graduating from Dartmouth College, Klein began doing stand-up in New York, and was hanging around fellow comics Janeane Garofalo and Margaret Cho. She found the company intimidating, though, and stopped doing comedy for five years, focusing instead on acting. In 1995, Klein started pursuing stand-up aggressively, her routine focusing on her fear of getting married. After writing “The Move,” Klein debuted her piece last March at the Here Space in New York; “The Move” then moved to Los Angeles’ Stages Theater for a four-month run that closed earlier this month. One of the things that Klein finds funny about “The Move” is that, looking back on her New York apartment, it really wasn’t all that great a place.”It’s comedic in that the place was a pit,” said Klein. “People would come over and say, ‘What’s your problem?'”Now that Klein is married and the apartment is part of her past, she says “The Move” has taken on a different tone, like a “love letter to a more innocent time in New York.” But the show hasn’t lost anything from no longer being a contemporaneous reflection on her situation.”It’s funny to do the show, because it was so real at the time,” she said. “But the show’s better now. I feel more freedom to go all the way with it. I;m less afraid of what people think.”Shyness Is Nice”Marc Spitz says there is no such thing as rock ‘n’ roll theater. But is there was, he’d be in the middle of it.”There’s not such a thing as a rock ‘n’ roll playwright, or rock ‘n’ roll theater. Because rock ‘n’ roll is rock ‘n’ roll, and theater is theater,” said the 32-year-old Spitz. “But if there is such a thing, then we’re part of it.”What puts Spitz at the center of the would-be rock ‘n’ roll theater is “Shyness Is Nice,” a wham-bam play that features plenty of sex and drugs to go with the rock ‘n’ roll. The title is taken from a song by the Smiths, one of Spitz’s touchstone bands. “Shyness Is Nice” is the story of two 30-year-old, record-collecting virgins, Stew and Rodney, who are set up by their addict friend with an Australian hooker. “Most of the stuff I write is about sexual confusion,” said Spitz, who will see his latest creation performed today, Friday, March 1, at 11:30 p.m., and tomorrow, Saturday, March 2, at midnight, at the Hotel Jerome. Rock music competes with sexual confusion for a lead role in everything Spitz writes. Spitz is a senior contributing writer at Spin, the impossibly hip and sarcastic magazine devoted to modern music. “It’s unavoidable,” said Spitz of the music infusion into his writing. “It’s my day job. I’m a record collector and a DJ. The changeover music from scenes to dialogue – it saturates the work.”The 32-year-old Spitz, a Long Island native now comfortably settled into New York’s East Village, sees himself as a bit of a commentator for a generation. “My generation, Generation X, had a pretty aggressive stance, with punk rock and bands like Nirvana and the grunge bands,” he said. “There’s a new culture, the Emo culture, that’s more fey and wallflowery and bookish. I was kind of observing that through my job at Spin. I thought it was ripe for satirizing. It’s a mutation of punk rock, but it’s restrained, as opposed to in your face.”Spitz understands that such of-the-moment writing doesn’t have much of a shelf life. And he’s staring to care about being dated, but not too much.”These references are frozen in time, and that’s the downside to being connected with a certain time,” said Spitz, who was written several previous plays, including “Retail Sluts” and “The Rise and Fall of Farewell Drugs.” “But it really works on stage, so I’m not going to stop doing it. If I’m relegated to some corner, representing some time like hippies and beatniks, that’s OK. “But I worry. I’m 32, not 24. I don’t want to be at parties and using this dated lingo. That’s a total concern. How am I going to age? I don’t fucking know. When do you get out of the way?”
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