A director once told me that "Anything performed on a cabaret stage is cabaret," which makes sense and probably why this art form is constantly evolving. Its life blood is dependent on the creativity of every performer who's ever had the urge to express themselves by whatever means they envision to tell their story. That freedom of expression can be an exciting force to behold--one that can delight, entertain, and, if we're lucky enough, even enlighten. Within this realm there is "spoken word" and/or "characterization work" that so completely expresses the core of an artist (as actor, as writer, as social commentator, as clown) that an audience member may at times feel they are experiencing magic or madness, but it's that good kind of madness.
Mark McCombs is one of those madcap Thespians offering one of the best examples of "character work" on the current New York cabaret scene. Having studied and performed with the New York Gotham City Improv Company, it's little wonder McCombs's first solo show, Ten Jumps Ahead of a Fit, earned him a 2002 Bistro Award, while his second show, Bottomfeeders, brought him a Nightlife Award. His most recent show on April 10 at the Metropolitan Room, The Mark McCombs Progr'um, was a hilarious romp into the ridiculous world of five characters that no doubt originated from McCombs' Florida panhandle origins. When the lights go dim and ya'll hear the recorded, clarion-voiced, "Miss Vestal Goodman" singin' that good ole Southern Baptist gospel favorite, "Looking For A City", well, let me tell you, yur heart fills with joy, and yur ears fill with blood as Miss Vestal and "Mr. Johnny Cook" of the "Happy Goodman Gospel Family" have a kinda duelin' deliverance sing-off reaching amazing decibel levels with six key changes complete with six amazing light changes all thanks to the sound and light wizardry of J. P. Perreault. Whew!
All this is a befitting entrance for "Click Hollis," the 92-year-old "Country Music Legend" doddering in with a cane in one hand, and in the other the lovely Award-winning cabaret performer [Miss] Lorinda Lisitza (see photo) dressed in cowgirl red-royalty, pluckin' expertly away on guitar, her eyes scanning the audience with the deadliest of deadpans, all the while ole Click hoots and hollers a knee slappin', dirty little ditty, "Have A Nice Day" (McCombs/Steven Ray Watkins) that expertly parodies the good ole days of the Grand Ole Opry.
Between each character McCombs does a complete costume change behind an off-stage black curtain (that takes amazing organizational skills) to completely transform from one character to the next. The result is almost shocking. How one man could physically change so completely in appearance so quickly remains a mystery. So, while the audience waits, McCombs cleverly gives us another dose of Florida panhandle pandering by playing the answering machine message of "Brenda's Boobies," a business that apparently caters to the woman (or man) in need of anything pertaining to and including--boobies.
"Myrtice Pooley" enters next with phone in hand. McCombs labels her the housewife gossip. True to her calling and comically dressed in night gown, wig (complete with curlers), furry slippers, and with coffee cup in hand, Myrtice complains about everything--her husband, the crazy paranoid neighbor across the street that's always borrowing something and never returns the equivalent in product, or she's raggin' to her friend about menopause that supports her need to have a few and carry on in such a way that goes well beyond southern redneck stereotype. Her wisdom and no-nonsense approach to life is comical yet refreshingly honest. Let's face it, there's a Myrtice Pooley in every family.
Among McCombs five characters, Bait and tackle salesman "Bit Mullins" is the real philosopher. Bit has a penchant for all things big--big fish, big tales, and most of all, big women, "Lulu Roman" of the TV series Hee-Haw to be exact. Showing up at a local Wal-Mart where Ms. Lulu is to make a personal appearance, Bit encounters the twin boys, (Lane and Zane) who mercilessly bullied him as a poor boy way back in high school. Now consumed with revenge, Bit experiences a kind of Wal-Mart "comic conscious revelation" upon seeing the God-awful-ugly-offspring of the twins, and one spouse that was so ugly "her make-up mirror was on suicide watch." Karma payback is a bitch. The deeper lesson here being that "forgiveness" and "self awareness" just might be the final cure for bullying. "Ain't it a grand day when you roll over and realize you're just as entitled to be happy as anyone?" Bit pronounces. The audience spontaneously applauds and cheers Bit in agreement.
Attention Wal-Mart shoppers! To set the mood for the next characterization (while McCombs makes his costume change), please note on the big (onstage) screen the most amazing pictorial selections of the BIGGEST (and I do mean biggest) Wal-Mart Shoppers ever assembled in one unsightly collection.
Suddenly, a petite, firecracker of a woman, "Treva Pitts" enters dressed in bargain basement refinery and pushing a shopping cart. McCombs identifies Treva (photo left) as his small town trash trophy. This is a woman consumed with rage testifying, "Things piss me off in life, and then I act out." True to her word, when her feeble old high school teacher, "Miss Timmons," deliberately bangs her in the butt with her shopping cart, Treva unleashes 40 years of her venomous, wrathful pain at the mean old woman who (as her teacher years ago) publically condemned her to a life of poverty and ignorance before her life had even begun. Decreeing her heritage has doomed her, Treva (yet once again) is handcuffed and comically carted off by Wal-Mart security. After the song, "My Precious Little One" telling us the story of a poor abandoned child, "Little Terrence," the 4-year-old grandson of Treva, enters sucking on orange Kool-Aid powder, wearing only filthy rags and the hopeful grin of childhood innocence. McCombs has brilliantly drawn a strong and stark contrast in character between Treva and her grandson by representing the grim past of poverty against the joyful and hopeful light of this family's future.
This show--worthy of an Off-Broadway run--was masterfully directed by Lennie Watts with the challenge being to keep the energy of the audience up while an offstage McCombs transforms from one character to the next. Watts uses country music, recordings, and regional photographs as the glue that holds it all together, while at the same time giving us a deeper understanding of the fascinating world of these Florida panhandle characters so richly created and brilliantly performed by Mark McCombs.
Billie Roe for broadwayworld.com