Helen & Edgar
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 9, 2012
About Edgar Oliver's new show Helen & Edgar, it is important, I think, to manage expectations. This is billed as a "long-form story," and that's precisely what it is—as opposed to a play, which it is not. I mention this because the last Oliver solo show, East 10th Street: Self Portrait With Empty House, was a play; and if you go to this new piece expecting something like that one, it's possible that you will be somewhat let down.
But if you are ready for Oliver doing one of the things he does very very well—namely, holding an audience enrapt while telling one or another of his trademark weird reminiscences in his trademark oh-so-singular voice and style—then I believe you will enjoy yourself at Helen & Edgar.
The five tales that comprise this performance together form a kind of prequel to East 10th Street. They mostly take place in Savannah, Georgia, Oliver's hometown, and they trace his life from birth to college, more or less. The title notwithstanding, the show's prime focus is Oliver's mother, Louise, an eccentric and iconoclast with severe paranoid tendencies (to say the least). "Beware of relatives," she tells her impressionable children (Edgar and his older sister, Helen). "Beware of other people."
Helen & Edgar has an arc that surprised me, though perhaps it shouldn't have. In Act I, we experience Mother and her wonderful strangeness as her young children did, which is to say as a given, a thing to be accepted and loved and not questioned. The crazy tales recounted here—about visits to dreaded relatives, a backyard swimming pool turned into a swamp through neglect, the mystery of their deceased father—all have an innocence that belies their macabre qualities. Helen and Edgar and Mother are a family unit, if a wildly cockeyed one, and they're easy to root for.
Act II turns things on their head, with the now teenage Helen and Edgar experiencing Mother from a more grown-up perspective. Superior knowledge of the world edges out empathy, and the rebellion these two go through is more extreme than most young adults'; having a wayward Peter Pan for a parent is less amusing when you are no longer a child yourself. So this part of the show is harder, though we're still rooting for our hero (and his sister) to find their way.
All of this is conveyed through Oliver's marvelously evocative words, delivered inimitably in a persona that he wears easily—the unusual voice, the spare use of gesture, the strange connection with everyone in the room that he so effortlessly manages despite wearing his otherness so obviously on his sleeve. Oliver is a masterful storyteller, and his fans at the opening night performance were delighted by pretty much everything he did.
Now all that said, nearly two hours of Oliver may be too much of a good thing. Though the stories build on one another, the dearth of theatrical context may well lessen their cumulative impact. There's no lighting design, no sound design, no costume design, and no set; and those things could provide a world for Oliver and his tales to exist within (as we saw in East 10th Street). I missed that.
But I will end this review as I ended my review of the earlier show, by saying that I still want more of Edgar Oliver. There are many more stories that he needs to share with us.