Trav S.D.’s Tent Show Tetragrammaton
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 17, 2011
In Judaism, the Tetragrammaton is the unpronounced and ineffable name of God. This fact has absolutely nothing to do with Trav S.D.'s new show at La MaMa. God, Jews, Hebrew vowels, and even the more general subjects of religion or history are not connected with this anthology of three short plays; even the "tetra" part (from the Greek for four) leads us nowhere, as the planned fourth component of this (now) trilogy was excised prior to opening night.
But thank you, Mr. S.D., for giving me something to research while writing this review.
Trav S.D.'s Tent Show Tetragrammaton consists of Universal Rundle, Contrapuntal Bestiale, or The Strange Case of Grippo the Apeman, and Strega Nona, all of which are written by Mr. S.D. The first two are also directed by him, while the last is directed by Carolyn Raship. For those who know Trav S.D.'s wide-ranging oeuvre—everything from the wacky folk musical House of Trash, which is based on a comedy by Terrence, to his vaudeville book/stage show No Applause, Just Throw Money—the selection here may feel a mite serious; there are very few of the gags and guffaw-inducing bits that made him, while just a very young man, the funniest person in Rhode Island. And for those, like me, who treasure Trav S.D.'s increasingly rare on-stage appearances as an actor, the sad truth is that he appears in only one of these plays. It is not intended to slight any of his co-stars when I say selfishly that I wanted more of him.
Universal Rundle is a blues thriller set deep in the Louisiana bayou. King Louie is an old bluesman who disappeared from public life years ago, reinventing himself as the "King of the Blues" and a thing of (urban?) legend as he reigns from the throne that gives the play its title. When a young woman named Miss Baby accidentally stumbles into his lair, all kinds of strange stuff happens. Or is it an accident at all? Timothy McCown Reynolds, almost unrecognizable under makeup and a gigantic hat that makes him look like a Halloween monster, growls and snarls and occasionally sings and dances as King Louie. Hope Cartelli plays the presumed sweet young thing Miss Baby, while Jeff Lewonczyk portrays her brother, Lloyd. Lewonczyk has this play's funniest bit, reciting in relentless deadpan a list of improbable courses served at some past banquet. Bob Laine and Stephen Heskett have fun cameos as a pair of dancing skeletons, while Art Wallace and Frank Didonato set the mood with excellent bluesy sounds on guitar and drums.
After intermission (which at the performance reviewed featured Josh Hartung singing in the La MaMa lobby; I don't know if he's at every show but for your sake I hope so—his timely rendition of the "Spiderman" cartoon theme song is hilarious), we are treated to The Strange Case of Grippo the Apeman. This features Tom BIbla in the title role as an Elephant Man-esque idiot savant who has a single, utterly astonishing talent. Bob Laine plays Frobusher, his "keeper," and Trav S.D. is Eddie, the seedy vaudeville showman determined to make a buck off Grippo, conscience and consequence be damned. The play focuses on Eddie's attempt to "sell" his show to the moral arbiters of the small Connecticut town where he and his entourage are temporarily encamped. Stephen Heskett as the Sheriff and especially Catherine Michele Porter as society doyenne/tastemaker Mrs. Stessel are delightful and very funny as we watch them try to resist Eddie's pitch and Grippo's talent. Trav S.D., with painted-on moustache a la early Groucho, does his patented wise guy bit to the hilt. The ending of the play, though, takes us in a direction we do not see coming.
There follows what the press release calls a "digestif," a brief and silly sketch called Strega Nona that stars Sarah Malinda Engelke as a weird Italian psychic. Engelke gets to show off her lovely singing voice and her distinctive accordion playing here; she also has some fun telling fortunes for audience members (no difficult interaction required). I cannot give away the secret to her powers, however.
A host of downtown all-stars, including Adam Swiderski (fight direction), Becky Byers (choreography), Jeff Nash (lighting), and Julz Kroboth (sets, props, costumes) have contributed their skills to this salmagundi. It's a full and interesting evening, and though I guess I'd expected the overall tone to be on the lighter side, it's nice to see Trav S.D. and his collaborators on stage at La MaMa, that crowning jewel of NYC's indie theater community.