Automatic Arts, producers of the Nice and Fresh series of new short works, capture the SoLow Festival do-it-yourself aesthetic in People Are Strange and Other Revelations. This eclectic quartet of one-person pieces plays in the Da Vinci Art Alliance.
Writer-director-performer Josh McIlvain starts the evening with a darkly funny recorded pre-show announcement. This travels into intriguing territory when he explains that "robots have rights" and that the space is haunted by vampires.
A gallery of characters
The creepy vibe continues in "Away," which McIlvain performs with a microphone in the small space, switching lights on and off as he goes. "Away" is actually a dialogue, I realized.
It’s a discussion about escaping everyday life to start over elsewhere, veering into a hilarious consideration of blindness's possible benefits and brilliant throwaway moments such as, "I've been trying out saying that Jesus said stuff." (As our president has proven, say something often enough and people will believe it.)
Nik Menotiades's "That's My Time" likewise includes multiple characters. A nervous standup comedian wearing a tracksuit tells corny jokes ("Where were potatoes first fried? In Greece!").
Menotiades also plays a heckler who takes over the show, then transforms into another comic (new costume hidden beneath the tracksuit), performing funny animal impressions. His excruciating comedy of discomfort left me thinking fondly of Andy Kaufman.
In "Key West or Bust," written and directed by McIlvain, Tara Demmy plays Billy, a guy driving with friends from Troy, New York, to southern Florida. Demmy wades into the audience, talking to us like we're old friends sharing stories. Billy's adventure is equally funny and sad, as the drive's rigors nearly ruin Margaritaville, but Demmy's lovable lout finds a silver lining.
McIlvain also penned "A Friend," performed by Marissa Kennedy. As "M" sits painting, she recalls a variety of friends in a soft-spoken and sincere stream-of-consciousness chat that is deceptively detailed and deep. Can men and women really be friends? There's no easy answer.
Like Automatic Arts' "Nice and Fresh" series, People Are Strange slyly proves larger than the sum of its parts. Their DIY approach brews connections between disparate (and desperate) characters unadorned by theater's more formal trappings. The humor often emanates from a feeling of common experience: at one time or another, we've been all these characters.
We're just folks in a room, perhaps sipping a beer (thoughtfully provided!), sharing something special. People Are Strange is us.
What, When, Where
People Are Strange and Other Revelations. By Josh McIlvain and Nik Menotiades, McIlvain and Marissa Kennedy directed. Automatic Arts and SoLowFest. Through June 16, 2018, at the Da Vinci Art Alliance, 704 Catharine Street, Philadelphia. automaticartsco.com.