Paulsen's Lonely Banquet
nytheatre.com review by Ross Peabody
November 30, 2005
Watching John Paulsen's one-man show Paulsen's Lonely Banquet is like sitting down to a drink and listening to a Tom Waits album with your closest confidant, who happens to be a talking mime. (If you're not sure, that's a high compliment.) Spanning the entirety of human history through the use of traditional theatrical style, dance-theatre, clown techniques, vaudeville, and Paulsen's own pure, innocent charisma—yet simultaneously staying intimate and small—Paulsen's Lonely Banquet is a special treat. Funny and melancholic, it elicits a stream of laughter while never straying far from the precipice of a very disturbing and existential contemplation of isolation and mortality.
The show itself is actually a compilation of two of Paulsen's solo work, doolymoog and The Tangle. They work so well as a unit, however, that the transition into a full evening of performance and skillfully wrought theatrical storytelling is seamless. doolymoog is a series of vignettes exploring moments in the lives of a motley assortment of characters that can best be described as the losers and the lost. Vignettes may be the wrong word here, though, as Paulsen and director George Lewis have gone to great pains to keep this show from being the typical guy-standing-on-a-stage-doing-different-characters shtick endemic to so many one-person shows. Instead, what they have created is a fully-realized world of their own making, in which what is presented is the equivalent of going to the weirdest part of town possible, strolling down the street, and peeking through every ground floor window and door that you come across and spending a few minutes watching the inhabitants. Even the transitions between pieces are smaller pieces unto themselves, often just as poignant as the main events, that serve to keep the show from ever flagging.
Paulsen and Lewis use every tool in their ample arsenal to give each element of doolymoog a personality all its own. The achingly eerie post-apocalyptic "A Town Somewhere" uses only a flashlight, a creaky chair, a few slips of paper, and the silence and darkness of the room itself to show us two pen pals who may be the only survivors of the end of time. "C.O.S.M.O.M.A.N." incorporates pure movement, guttural vocalizing, and a striking use of glow-in-the-dark paint to illustrate the entirety of man's prehistoric evolution from knuckle-dragging monkey to erect modern man.
I'm afraid that I might be making this show sound more dark or serious than it actually is, so let me point out that I missed most of the vignette "The Blue Cafe," a collection of grotesques doing open mike night at an empty local dive, because I simply could not stop laughing myself blue over Paulsen's depiction of shy sad little Gertrude at the mike earnestly singing about love and passion. Knee-jerk laugh fits like this aren't entirely uncommon in this show, but, as Henry, a Wonder bread delivery man who's going on his first date, existentially notes to his only friend (a raggedy stuffed bear) in the the light and funny "Henry," what you find when you look behind the desk is an empty void.
The Tangle fits right into the world that Paulsen creates with doolymoog. Beginning as a frenetic lecture on freedom and the imagination by a clown with paranoid delusions, The Tangle tells the story of how this clown came to believe in "the controllers," a shadowy Illuminati-esque group of individuals that, well, controls the minds of everyone. Beginning as a schlub on a Greyhound bus, Paulsen's clown reenacts his meeting with Butch Cassidy, who turns him onto the existence of the "controllers," that fittingly ends in a slow vaudeville dance of a gunfight with our paranoid clown acting as Butch's Sundance Kid in a showdown with the "controllers."
Paulsen's Lonely Banquet is a splendid example of a performer/writer and a director who collaborate like a well-oiled creative machine: Lewis working to Paulsen's strengths, and Paulsen putting his all into Lewis staging. The two work with a single-minded grace of execution that is unusual in today's dearth of one person shows, and is, in itself worth taking the time to see. Paulsen empathizes so strongly with the pathos of his characters that, as you laugh at them yourself, you can't help but share their lonely plight to survive. To quote one of Paulsen's many characters, you "don't really know who we are or what you are doing here... it is a drape of dreams and nothing else matters." If I have to look into that void, it's affirming that I'm looking into it with Paulsen looking over my shoulder and whispering sweet jokes into my ear, quite possibly while doing a little jig.