Dig & Be Dug: The Gospel of Lord Buckley
nytheatre.com review by Matt Roberson
June 6, 2010
In 1960, a very curious figure in the history of American entertainment died. Part band-leader, part jazz man, former vaudevillian and full-time spoken word artist (before it was called that), Richard Myrle Buckley, or "Lord" Buckley, was a foundation for giants of the quick tongue and verbal jest like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin. Espousing something called "Hip-Semantics," Buckley made a place for himself in American popular culture by turning classical texts, ideas, and stories inside out, using the language of the street and the nightclub. The Lord's jive-laden "To Be or Not to Be" is especially rich. The reason for this was more than just to tickle the ears and brains of those listening. Buckley apparently carried through his work a message of love and tolerance, and a belief in the power of the individual (all "Ladies and Gentlemen," he argued, should be "Lords and Ladies"). I mention Buckley's death, because it is this man, as well as his beliefs, and most important, his incredibly deft verbal ability, that is being memorialized by Ryan Knowles in the entertaining, rapid-fire solo show Dig & Be Dug, playing now as part of the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity.
Dig & Be Dug moves along a clever construction. Entering as a stoner in a bathrobe, Knowles starts what becomes a church service, featuring the teachings not of Jesus or Paul, but of Buckley. The communion is Oreos and Crystal Pepsi, the priestly robe is a tattered sport coat, and spiritual music is provided by Knowles's gloomy roommate Mimsy (a barely seen but musically adept Peter Saxe). With the delicacy of a firecracker, Knowles swerves through various characters, jumping from his very funny stoner, to Buckley himself, and finally to the characters that made up the stories told by Buckley. If some of these stories are difficult to follow, it's okay. Surely they offered similar challenges to Buckley's audiences as well. But the language! To sit and bask in the twists and turns of Buckley's words, some taken directly from recordings and others rearranged for the show, is a delight. And in the hands of Knowles, the same excitement and fascination that must have shot through the Lord's audiences is alive and palpable. Knowles is an electric performer, with a bold and gigantic stage presence that is hard to match. Whether singing, dancing, or guiding us through the story of the Lord, Knowles is committed well beyond one hundred percent, and if that scares you, I suggest you sit in the back. The engagement he has with the audience in Dig is intense, but thrilling. His vocal range is also on display here. Knowles has a strong, versatile voice, and can take it high and to silly places, as with the stoner, as well as go low, and soulful. Most importantly, however, is the control he has over this instrument, which allows him to move rapidly between moments and levels without ever becoming unclear or overpowering.
As a moment of reflection upon the importance of the spiritual, humane message of Lord Buckley, Dig & Be Dug is only partly effective. At times the jazzed-up stories of Buckley as told through Knowles, while always interesting to hear, only partially connect to each other, making it difficult to find a clear dramatic throughline. But then again, Buckley wasn't performing in churches and meeting halls, but in nightclubs and mobster dens. No matter the earnestness of his hip teachings and values, Buckley wanted to, above all, entertain. In Dig & Be Dug, that desire comes through full throttle, and for that, the good Lord has Ryan Knowles to thank.