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Ruminations on life,
death, conscience and morality are presented in the form of a self-reflexive stand-up
routine by writer and performer Alex Johnston. Touted as a play and
directed by Bedrock Theatre Company Artistic Director Jimmy Fay, Entertainment
is essentially a philosophical composition in Dialogue form. It presents an
intentionally fractured central narrative punctuated with self-proclaimed
rants on not unrelated topics. The most significant recurring element is
Johnstons relationship with his Lutheran preacher father, a character whose life
story provides the other for the Dialogue at its center.
By the time the routine has ended, the elder Johnston has gone from a
paternal authority figure to something more ambiguous, an almost abstract dream-image who
resorts to a cheesy Jackie Mason-like accent (in spite of his racial and religious
backgrounds) to question his sons sense of moral authority and disappears with an
enigmatic and unexplained riddle spoken in German, a language which Alex does not speak.
"Tell me what it means," pleads Alex, "What does it mean?" he repeats
- but there is no answer.
The performance begins with a short film shot by Fay in which Johnston
is first seen walking through the woods, which, we are told by a helpful extra holding a
piece of cardboard with text scrawled on it, represents doubt. To the gentle musical
strains of AC/DC, Johnston then pursues a girl "you never got off with" through
the trees, eventually finding his way to a hand-written sign directing him to the stage.
"The Live Bit" begins with a pause, as the performer walks on and stares
disapprovingly at the audience before walking off again, leaving the stage empty. This
kind of deconstructive, ironic theatricality continues throughout, and creates ambiguous
spaces that challenge the audience to find an appropriate response. The most usual
response is laughter, and this is the subject of many of the humorous asides with which
Johnston peppers the show.
Though not shockingly original in any respect, the combination of
serious political and cultural analysis and black humor is a fairly potent mix. Johnston
specifically refers to his literary forebear Jonathan Swift during one extended joke in
which he offers a "Modest Proposal" to solve the obesity problem in the United
States and the hunger problem in Iraq in one fell swoop. If cross-cultural cannibalism
seems an unsuitable topic for an evenings entertainment, then you are unlikely to
appreciate the performers insights into Faith, Will, and Justification, which he
epitomizes by juxtaposing the tales illustrated by slide shows of a medieval French Knight
who specialized in rape, infanticide, and abduction but at least plead guilty when brought
to trial, with the story of Dan White and his notorious Twinkie defense
following the assassination of Harvey Milk. This is not the least of it, and when he
produces an apparently authentic Waffen SS diary featuring a section on wit and
humor, the point about jokes being universal but not universally funny is well taken
(even if he eventually reveals said chapter as apocryphal).
Entertainment is a thoughtful piece of writing which probes
the process of its own creation both in the personal and more general, formal sense.
Exploring his own social and religious roots, Johnston examines Irish attitudes to
contemporary politics, likening the Irish to the snickering henchmen in Shane who
back up Jack Palance and die anonymously in the final shoot-out. There is bile aplenty in
the various sociopolitical rants, and yet by drawing the dialogue back to the central
discourse between father and son, society and morality, God and Man, he keeps the routine
grounded. He explores his own motivations for performing comedy, and interrogates the
social role of humor and the attitudes represented by our capacity and desire to laugh at
discomforting thoughts. Is any of it actually funny? Yes: which is not to say that it will
appeal to all tastes.
On the whole Johnston carries the routine easily enough. There are many
difficult transitions from hysteria to deadpan, and the timing of one-liners and asides is
absolutely crucial. Though the playscript suggests that the order of anecdotes is
flexible, there is a clear internal structure here (even though he jokes about it by
presenting a Lego model to explain it), and the performer is required to be very precise
with each segment to maintain balance throughout. He does this even through the final
moments where, having wrapped his face in scotch tape, he sings "The Universal"
by Britpop band Blur, slowly unwinding the tape in a gesture which may or may not
represent liberation through self-expression.
Dublin, September 3,