Laughing all the way from the Cistern to Theatre 99

A Regular Laugh Riot

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Micaela Vita is too lovely a performer and too pleasant a personality to have hidden herself as she did behind her drums on the Cistern stage last night, but it’s awfully easy to forgive her. The Argentinean vocalist joined legendary six-string bass player Willy Gonzalez for an open-air gig during which she did triple duty on vocals, a traditional Argentine drum, and as translator for Gonzalez, who doesn’t have much English but made up for it with mad fingerwork and a sense of humor. At one point Vita told the crowd, a three-quarters-full gallery under a perfect spring evening quarter moon, that their next song was “about a man and his instrument.” A glance from Gonzalez, no doubt much rehearsed, prompted her to add, “A man and his musical instrument.”

Theatre 99 has been presenting their answer to the city-produced Piccolo Fringe for 11 years now, and they seem to take special pride in programming a roster of comedy acts that cannot but tweak the officious municipal sensibilities of the Office of Cultural Affairs. For example, this year they included NYC indie comedy-scene darling Kurt Braunohler’s Amish Guide to Fucking, which must have set city officials scrambling for the whiteout, especially when the show’s name appeared in various published schedules, fringe and otherwise, with all of its full and proper English spelling hanging out for everyone to see.

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On the boards last night: a set from Ted and Melanie, otherwise known as Paul Brittain of Saturday Night Live and Comedy Fest alum Jet Eveleth, who brought a collection of favorite scenes from their improvised show at the iO Theater in Chicago. The program description for their show states that “Brittain and Eveleth create a collection of short comedic plays with vulnerable characters,” but this doesn’t nearly do justice to the depth and breadth of the top-tier craftsmanship these two bring to their performance as actors. One of the oldest misunderstandings in the book is that comedy is easier than drama. Any actor will tell you it’s child’s play to make an audience cry; but to make them laugh, well, that takes talent of a rare magnitude.

But it’s also instructive to watch a show like Ted and Melanie and marvel at how fine can be the line between comedy and drama. The characters these two specialize in are misanthropes and broken things, placed in awkward, uncomfortable, and disastrous situations: a woman who's just discovered the man she brought home and seduced is only 15 years old; a needy drunken college girl at a wedding party.The very best comedy, of which there is much on display here, often shines a light on the darkness of the human condition. Shakespeare knew this, as have contemporary comedy actors from Bill Murray to playwright Martin McDonagh and the geniuses of Kneehigh Theatre. Slapstick and cheap gross-out comedy and the like is low-hanging fruit for “comedy” everywhere (one the screen as much as on the stage), and it’s to their credit that The Have Nots!, who program and host the Piccolo Fringe at their theater, typically stay well away from it. The secret truth is that you’re likely to see as much fine dramatic acting on the stage at Theatre 99 as anywhere on the big stages this season, and that’s as true during the rest of the year as it is this week.

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