nytheatre.com review by Joe Pindelski
February 21, 2009
Throughout the 90 minutes of the one-man show Human Jukebox, premiering at La MaMa ETC, Joseph Keckler's talent for beautiful characterizations and gift for storytelling are on display. Keckler pairs the two tales "I Am Not a Cat-Lady" and "Human Jukebox" to create an evening that appears to meditate both on the events in life that cause us to deviate from our planned course, and how we are remembered when we are not around. The primary muse for this journey is Keckler's mother, who features prominently in both tales, and the stories unfold as Keckler's diary of the eccentricities of life and the people we encounter in it.
Storytelling is the best way to describe what Keckler does onstage. Keckler unfolds his pieces with the descriptiveness of a novel, and then calmly flips between performing the roles of mother, to narrator, to aunt, back to mother, and then back to narrator. It is a dizzying display of physical, vocal, and mental skill that elevates the evening to performance; however, this skill also keeps the emotional involvement of the pieces rather low.
For example, Keckler will don a jacket and, with great restraint, describe every detail of the jacket for the audience before he begins incorporating the jacket into his story. It is this detailing that seems to keep Keckler detached from his stories' events. He carefully articulates every color, crack, and shadow, but neither he nor the audience ever experiences the texture of the coat—or is transported to the porch of his parents' house, or to the music room of his vocal coach in Greenpoint. Everyone remains very firmly seated in the café at La MaMa, watching a very talented storyteller intellectually relate every detail of his beautiful stories.
Keckler's gift for gab is enhanced by Elizabeth Gimbel's simple staging, smartly keeping the physical shape of the piece diverse and effectively supportive. Using set designer Robert Eggers's beautifully textured and simple contributions, Gimbel not only gives some visual and emotional punch to Keckler and his stories, but she also helps in relieving some of Keckler's burden of description. The loneliness of sitting in your Williamsburg apartment while talking to your mother on the phone is beautifully created using the simplest of techniques. It is moments like that which put the whole performance in perspective.
"I Am Not a Cat-Lady" and "Human Jukebox" combine to create a piece of staggering skill and endurance for Joseph Keckler. Along with some beautiful musical interludes and witty little ditties, the evening is one of great talent; however, it is also a refined evening best appreciated by those who enjoy the intellectual pursuit of great storytelling.