Oh, there's nothing funnier than seeing someone in pain. If you don't agree, try watching America's Funniest Home Videos, or pretty much any viral video online: Watch some poor schlub fall off the back of a golf cart, and you can't help but laugh.
Of course, it's not nearly as funny if you're the schlub: Pain up close is just, well, painful. The best comedy is able to ride a fine line down the middle—keeping the audience members distant enough that they feel comfortable, but close enough that they feel the humanity underneath. You can see that in action as two Tucson theater companies present the work of two very different comic geniuses.
E + A Productions is presenting Spic-O-Rama, written by John Leguizamo, whose approach to dealing with pain is highlighted right in the title. He takes something ugly—in this case, a racial slur—and transforms it into a celebration.
The phrase is invented by 9-year-old Miggy, the first character in this one-man show. When Miggy is called a spic by another child, he proudly declares, "I am spic-tacular!" We recognize a world where even children are taught to be hateful, but Miggy's resilience allows us to laugh. We know he's going to be OK.
What follows is an introduction to the "monsters, freaks and weirdos" who make up Miggy's family, all of them played by Alejandro Samaniego. There's Krazy Willie, the oldest brother, a Desert Storm veteran who's getting married the next day—if he can just trick his fiancée into showing up at the altar. There's Rafael, an "occasional heterosexual" who is convinced that he is the albino love child of Laurence Olivier. And then there's wheelchair-bound Javier, bitter and overlooked by his family.
We meet the boys' mother, Gladyz, at the laundry just before Willie's wedding, wishing she had a name like Christmas or Electricity so that people would find her interesting. The father, Felix, appears at the wedding to offer a toast. He offers some of the worst marriage advice ever—before hitting on the bride.
Spic-O-Rama premiered in New York in 1992, with Leguizamo performing all of the roles. Although he's best-known for his comedic work, he combined humor with heartache in this play to create a sense of real, living people beneath the stereotyped antics.
Performer Samaniego has substantial shoes to step into. He lacks the star charisma by which Leguizamo could command an audience for an entire evening, but what he does have is integrity, enthusiasm and boundless compassion for these six characters.
The result is that Spic-O-Rama becomes an honest-to-goodness tragicomedy. As the baby-faced Samaniego takes the stage in the transformative costumes by Nicole Valencia and makeup by Janet Lynn Henderson, it's hard not to get caught up in these characters' lives. Comedy has been transformed into something very real.
If Leguizamo creates comedy by aiming for the heart, playwright David Ives aims primarily for the brain.
Ives is popular among drama students for two reasons: His plays are very funny, and they're often very short. All in the Timing, now being performed at Studio Connections, is an evening of Ives' one-acts. Written between 1987 and 1993, the pieces run between five and 20 minutes long.
Ives loves to play with language, and he mines veins of absurd comedy gold from the awkwardness of human communication.
In "English Made Simple," for example, the small talk at a party is shown as an instructional film, complete with subtext translation. In "Words, Words, Words," three chimps are charged with writing Hamlet, but keep writing Paradise Lost instead. And in "Variations on the Death of Trotsky," the Bolshevik revolutionary has an ice ax sticking out of his skull. But he needs to read his biographical sketch in the encyclopedia before he can be convinced that the ax could kill him.
The strongest playlet was the surprisingly moving "Mere Mortals," directed by Moriah Flagler, about three construction workers (played beautifully by Brian Scott Hale, Steve Wood and John Mussack) who may be more than they seem.
Studio Connections' daVinci Players appear to have developed this production in a sort of collaborative orgy, with each cast member playing a variety of characters, and pitching in on set construction and directing duties. The advantage of this kaleidoscopic strategy is that performers get a number of chances to show off what they can do.
For example, "The Philadelphia" is basically a one-joke skit—in this metaphysical Philadelphia, you can have anything except what you want—and actors Mussack and Dan Colecchia struggle to make it fly. Director Steve Wood tries to bump up the antics, but to little avail.
Later, though, in "Words, Words, Words," Mussack gets a chance to display some amazing physical acting, and Colecchia turns into an endearing leading man in "English Made Simple." Wood shows off his acting chops as a construction worker from Jersey in "Mere Mortals," and as 50 different variations of a single character in "Sure Thing."
The only problem with all of the variety is that I don't have enough space to describe every enjoyable detail. I'll simply mention that my favorite performances were by Samantha Cormier as an insecure woman trying to learn a new language; Kristina Miranda Sloan as a charismatic monkey; and Hale as (possibly) the adult Lindbergh baby.
Whether your tastes run toward pure pleasure or comic pain, you can find plenty of laughs in these two productions. But hurry: Both plays close this weekend.