Jester of Tonga
nytheatre.com review by Josh Sherman
November 15, 2008
Joe Silovsky, the creator/performer of the fascinating one-man mixed-media show at P.S. 122, Jester of Tonga, may not have cooked up the first true theatre jambalaya, but I'd be willing to bet it is the only one that is set primarily in the South Pacific. Silovsky has masterfully pulled elements from such a wide swath of influences that it is safer to list them: Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood of Make-Believe, Gepetto's workshop, a robot from Mystery Science Theater 3000, the Travel Channel, and a Garrison Keillor radio play. The mere fact that it works, and incorporates the technical mastery of tiny video cameras, overhead projectors, and a functioning talking robot (built by Silovsky) makes this one of the most unique theatrical experiences of the season.
Jester of Tonga plays itself out (over the course of an hour or so) in a ramshackle storytelling manner that is probably most similar to Arlo Guthrie's masterpiece "Alice's Restaurant," with frequent tangents from Silovsky that do not fully connect until the final summation of the ripped-from-the-headlines plot. The story that Silovsky relates to us is of one Jesse Bogdanoff (who has now changed his last name to Dean) who stumbled into a career in money management in California, despite his best efforts to become a jazz musician. In the mid-1990s, he discovered a large sum of money (23 million dollars) that was quietly accruing 1% interest in a checking account that belonged to the king of the island nation Tonga. The king, as it happens, had made the majority of this income through some chicanery—selling British citizens in Hong Kong Tongan passports during a brief hysterical period as the British lease on the city of Hong Kong was about to expire, effectively handing the city back to China.
Bogdanoff offered to invest the King of Tonga's money (King Tupoa IV, if you're counting) in the booming stock market, which paid off handsomely for a time—earnings that were pushed up to nearly $38 million. It was at this time that Bogdanoff was bestowed the title the "Jester of Tonga." But the fun didn't last, and Silovsky details the tragic fall of both the king and his Jester.
Silovsky's quirky master stroke is the employment of Stanley the Robot to literally be the voice of the Jester of Tonga. Silovsky has accumulated telephone and videotaped interviews of Bogdanoff and programmed Stanley (via an iPod nano!) to speak into a microphone with Bogdanoff's voice. The beauty of this stage device is that it allows each audience member to judge the Jester through their own filter—and determine their level of sympathy for themselves. Silovsky's function is primarily narrating—nay, tour guiding the audience—through the mysterious island of Tonga and what the king and the jester's place within the island was.
From a technical perspective, Silovsky is some kind of a savant. All of his contraptions, from a Chinese chariot to the old-school overhead projector to the 20 old-school travel suitcases that litter the stage, are essential to his storytelling. His remote control of Stanley is barely noticeable—he has taken what could look like cheap ventriloquism and made it into puppeteer art.
If there is a flaw, Silovsky still does not seem particularly physically comfortable on stage in front of a audience. But he is dryly funny, and is clearly a technical wizard who is most comfortable in his manipulation of those kind of tools. But he has discovered a fascinating biography in the life of Jesse Bogdanoff. Jester of Tonga is a must-see travelogue that's spiced with good intentions and financial misdeeds, of colorful characters on both sides of the Pacific.