by John Stoehr
I've never been touched by the sight of a grown man singing to his foot, but indeed I got all vaklempt during Vaud Rats tonight in Lance Hall at the Circular Congregational Church. The foot in question belongs to K. Brian Neel, a Seattle actor and playwright who created and acted in Vaud Rats, a one-man show about a impoverished and forgotten former vaudeville star living out his days on scraps of memory and love lost.
We find him in a sewer, deep in his cups, and wearing little more than his gigantic white boxer shorts and black suspenders. The rats of the title are us, the audience, the only one he has left. The foot puppet scene comes when Neel's character, Cecil DeUkulele, recalls to ukulele accompaniment (the show's structure is a series of song-and-dance numbers, a la vaudeville) the heartache of a love affair with a beautiful dwarf named Opal.
On his left foot is a blue sock, representing him. On his right is a pink sock, representing Opal. As he strums his "midget guitar," Cecil acts out their dangerous liaison. His barely contained longing to be in her arms alternates with his fear of being discovered by Opal's husband, a powerful and violent man. They are both afraid, but love compels them to tempt fate.
This is of course after Cecil DeUkulele has thoroughly charmed us with his self-effacing humor, his mastery of parody (my favorite is the cigar-chewing showbiz manager type), his tuneful and joyful songs, and naturally his eagerness to entertain us. By the time we get to the foot puppet scene, we like him a lot. So the danger Cecil recounts feeling sits side by side with a wonder and whimsy that comes from a man singing to his feet, like children acting out adult dramas with their fingers as stand-ins for people. It's a charming and emotional complex moment that makes clear why people are talking about Vaud Rats, perhaps one of the sleeper productions of Piccolo Spoleto.
Vaud Rats is no trip down memory lane. It's a probing bit of theater that uses the trappings of a bygone era to convey universal themes in a wholly contemporary way. As we come to care emotionally for this down-and-out Pollyanna (there's always an audience in need of entertainment somewhere out there), we start to see parallels between our time and his. The weight of his turmoil is a weight we can feel.