Pat Ferri is a man who doesn't mind tripping in front of large audiences. In fact, tripping in front of large audiences is kind of Ferri's job. And when his one-man act, Wreckage-o-Rama, hits the American Theater later this month, hopefully he'll be tripping in front of you.
"There are a lot of pratfalls, a lot of gags, a lot of stunts," he says of the performance, which is part acrobatics display — complete with juggling and gymnastic feats — and part laugh-out-loud comedy show. "At one point I do a handspring off a ladder on the stage. It's not just me standing there, saying funny things, you know? It's based around character work but it's very theatrical."
Citing Buster Keaton, the Three Stooges, and British comic Lee Evans as influences, Ferri's background is in physical stand-up, though over the past few years he's found himself gravitating more toward slapstick and what he calls "the circus stuff." In Wreckage-o-Rama he plays eight or nine different characters, all of whom, he explains, are at "a day camp for people who can't get into any other day camps."
Though there's a steady stream of dialogue throughout the performance — "it's not a silent mime show or anything!" he laughs — the majority of the comedy "comes from the physical situations I set myself up for, and then try to get myself out of." And as for his typical audience? "It's usually the kind of guy who doesn't normally like theatre," he says, "the kind of guy who sees a Three Stooges bit on TV and says, 'hey, that was funny! I want to see that again!'"
Though the show is written for both kids and adults, Ferri warns that you probably wouldn't want to bring any under the ages of eight or nine. "There's nothing blue in the show, no swearing or anything," he says. "But a younger kid, four or five, isn't really going to get anything out of it. When it does venture into slightly more adult territory, though, it's very subtle; there's a scene, for example, where I play a masseuse and I'm sitting on top of this blow-up dummy in a wig. The kids are laughing because they're thinking, 'hey, look, that guy's sitting on top of a blow-up dummy in a wig!' but the adults are laughing more at the innuendo. The humor works on a couple of different levels."
One thing children do love, he says, is the element of audience participation. "I don't like scaring anyone or putting anyone on the spot — I mean, people have come to watch me being silly, not get up on stage and be silly themselves," he says. "But I do get a bit of help from the audience at some point in the show. There's always some kid screaming to come and take a hit at me, so there's a bit where I'll put these enormous boxing gloves on — I mean, like ridiculously enormous — and let them come up on stage for a play fight."
Having performed in Chicago with Del Close, the founder and former director of beloved improv troupe Second City, Ferris is well-versed in improv performance, but says Wreckage-o-Rama "isn't really subtle like that. It's very low-brow, very abrasive, very big and bombastic, and totally fun. People have a blast watching it and I have a blast performing it."
With shows booked at this year's Edinburgh Fringe in August, now's the time to see Ferri in all his slipping-and-tripping, tumbling-and-stumbling glory, because chances are, you haven't seen anything like it in a long time — and may not see anything like it for a while afterward. "People ask me all the time to describe the show, and there's really no perfect way to do it," he says. "I guess what audiences should know is that if they want to see the old slapstick, vaudevillian comedy they thought was gone forever, it's still out there."
But don't say we didn't warn you if you find yourself laughing so hard you snort audibly, drawing stares from the people behind you. "When you see something like improv, you nod to yourself and think, 'Ha, that was funny, I get it!'" says Ferri. "This kind of comedy gets a different response. The laugh comes straight from your gut; it's the kind you have to double over for. It's a reaction rather than a thought."
WRECKAGE-O-RAMA • Piccolo Spoleto's Piccolo Fringe at the American Theater • $15 • June 1, 8, 9 at 7 p.m.; June 2 at 2 p.m.; June 3, 10 at 5 p.m.; June 4 at 6 p.m.; June 7 at 8 p.m. • 1 hour • American Theater, 446 King St. • 554-6060