Have you ever seen a man balance on a rolling chair and use a stepladder as a crutch? Have you ever hung upside down while trying to style your hair? Have you ever seen The Dramatic Fool do all these things and more?
Okay, so you work in an office. And maybe you and your coworkers don’t have open access to a nearby stepladder. And clearly you’re busy—far too busy, in fact, to afford time to experiment with something so trivial as your hair. “Cut me a break,” you might say, “I’m tired. This is my third cup of coffee and I still have to send a morning’s worth of emails and pump out these memos so my colleagues can fill their spreadsheets.” Suddenly, the printer breaks down, the fax machine short circuits, your cell phone won’t make calls and you fed all your dimes to the meter after lunch.
While Walt Theo Fewl has never (yet) stood on a chair or combed his locks upside down, he has been here before. The lead character in Drew “The Dramatic Fool” Richardson’s latest comic exploit What the Fool?!?, played by the Athens native himself, has had his fill of the white collar working world and decided he wants to get out more. Fortunately for him, there is a lovely little vaudeville show slated for the evening of Sunday, March 17, 2013 at our very own ARTS/West. On a grail quest for inspiration and renewed vitality, Walt makes the journey to the modest arts center, unaware that in order to find his fortune he himself must become the night’s entertainment.
The Dramatic Fool’s show begins with a video, created exclusively for an Athens audience, of our protagonist bumbling into the venue in silent comedy style. Setting off his car alarm multiple times—assuaging its distress with tender strokes—rappelling downhill with a rubber hose, and catching his pop-up umbrella in the stair railing, he proves fodder for laughter with each move he makes.
The video itself, altered to feel like a 1920s silent film, brings to mind Richardon’s enthusiasm for that seminal film tradition. According to the actor audiences today are “spoonfed” by high-budget movies overfilled with cut-to-cut action and digital effects. Inspired by genre greats like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, Richadson revitalizes the silent film in order to broaden the arena for comic stunts and creative spoofery. In turn, this more grounded version of Hollywood comedy gives the audience space to focus more, relate more, and laugh more with their beloved fool.
This introduction further contributes to the play’s being venue specific—meaning that every performance of What the Fool?!? is slightly different based on where it’s held. Part of this, Richardson admits, is a result of practical planning. Almost all of the props the show requires (stepladders, programs, clothing racks, etc.) are things that could be found in virtually any theater at performance time; the logic goes that if one creates a play using only these objects, then he or she could easily perform in any space without the need to transport a large-scale set. What this means is that every rendition is conditioned by the potentials—and limitations—that a particular theater’s props, size, and shape provides. But while some productions would inevitably be crippled by these limitations, The Dramatic Fool uses each venue’s intrinsic flair to his advantage (in interview, he gave me an example of himself catching his foot, perhaps, in a small nook that exists between steps and the bottom of the ARTS/West stage). Nowhere is this more apparent than in his playful opening sequence.
The Dramatic Fool’s habit of experimenting with his surroundings is a celebration of potentials, an emphasis on the personality a given venue provides. Because of our ever more-routinized lives, even theater buffs will often find themselves traveling around with their “blinders on,” as Richardson puts it. More precisely, we have a tendency to streamline our vision to see only that which we deem most important; on the occasion of going to a show, for instance, this means we solely see our path through the ticket office, hear the steps we take to reach our seats, and view the show on stage as something like a potentially enriching creative expression contained in a pocket of space. What the Fool?!? aims to remove the creative act from this supposed vacuum. In utilizing a venue’s idiosyncrasies, The Dramatic Fool demonstrates the possibilities that exist in things—such as the shape of a stage—that often get overlooked. Ultimately, he hopes to make the audience’s experience of the environment—including that tragically impersonal journey from ticket counter to chair—more real, and to encourage them to see that space in an entirely new way.
Of course, extracting (I might say “exhuming”) the creative act from the vacuum is no one-way conversation. Like any good magician, Richardson relies almost as much on audience cues as he does on scripted action to make his act enjoyable. From his initial stumbling over observers in the search for a seat to his hilarious responses to louder-than-intended comments from children, The Dramatic Fool makes the audience just as much a part of the show as he is.
Therefore, enlisting both the audience and the ARTS/West venue itself in his fun-loving troupe of would-be jesters, Walt enters the auditorium as an observer in a stiff suit and thinning comb-over and leaves a veritable vaudeville everyman. Organizing itself as a series of problems—brilliantly occurring one after another as if by accident—the show sees Walt using leather belts as bridges, fashioning rope into a suspender for his falling slacks, and using gravity’s aid to produce the perfect hairdo. Each solution he conjures marks the stages by which he morphs from office flunky into big top hero.
Each solution—as well as its respective problem—is also decidedly somewhat silly. From silencing his car alarm via petting to taping paper to his shoe soles to legitimize walking on a stage that carries signs reading “No Street Shoes,” Walt must continually think outside the box to restore order to his world. He makes his first big mistake when he, shuffling exasperatedly through the pews (ARTS/West’s performance space was a sanctuary in days past), unwittingly launches his pop-open umbrella onto the stage. What follows is a circus act of hilarious proportions, as Walt must finagle some way of reaching it while emulating a classic children’s game of hot lava in a foolhardy attempt to avoid offense. Of course, nobody of feeling off-put, and he only prompts more laughter every time he hisses “sorry!” for the disturbance.
One would imagine that The Dramatic Fool, despite his brazen disregard for Broadway’s conventions and a magician’s contrivances, has thus charmed his audience. Though it takes its cues from the silent film and vaudeville traditions of old, his performance style is surprisingly fresh. This is in part because, while Richardson is certainly an actor with striking self-animation and a penchant for shocking an audience, What the Fool?!? is much less about talent than it is about folly. The show draws much of its inspiration from Richardson’s Think Foolishly blog and his video series “How to Think Like a Fool.” And while much of the actor’s thinking herein is merely jest, there is something to be said for its emphasis on the irrational when it comes to creativity. According to his creator, Walt Theo Fewl, can’t even seem to strut into a theater without running into all sorts of unorthodox problems, can only hope to solve them all if he begins to “think like a fool.”
Ultimately, one may see this breed of showmanship as a parody of our waking lives, and all parody is nothing more than a subversive, vulgarized, and yet eye-opening version of the truth. The eye-opening part, in this case, is the notion that if we hope to navigate the accumulating problems in our lives, we may do well to shirk the authorities of the rational experts and their big date—for a time—and do a little foolish brainstorming.
So while I sit here and pick apart The Dramatic Fool’s act in an effort to analyze (and sanitize) it for the rational mind, Walt Theo Fewl has probably moved on to solving another of life’s problems through the most creative and nonsensical of means. Although there is doubtless enough here to congeal some sort of overarching message—something like the rescue of creativity, ransomed by the objective world—What the Fool?!? is ultimately something entirely different. It is a playful and new take on visual comedy that loves nothing more than poking fun at all of our conventions and preconceptions in theater. And if there is anything to take away from the show, other than a big, hearty laugh, it is, as The Dramatic Fool himself puts it, to “play more.” Because to have fun—to explore one’s world and heed the creative impulse—is both a personal and political act. It is to give rise to the notion that all we consider to be “rational” and “grown-up,” while certainly useful in our day-to-day lives, is perhaps not the sum total of what we need to be human.