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Review of "Paulsen’s Lonely Banquet"

Here Arts Center, 145 6th Ave. (between Spring & Broome Sts.)
Wed-Sat at 8:30 p.m., Sun. at 4 p.m.
$15 Wed.,Thurs., Sun.; $18 Fri., Sat.
(212) 868-4444 or online at www.here.org
Closes Dec. 17
Reviewed by Robert Hicks on Dec. 11

"The Tangle"
Ending image of "Paulsen's Lonely Banquet"

Seattle performance artist John Paulsen can be best described as a dark, existentialist clown with the goofy physical gestures and lyrical storytelling of the late Red Skelton.

Paulsen’s Lonely Banquet is an evening of two solo works, Doolymoog and The Tangle. Doolymoog begins in a post-apocalyptic world in which the lead character is separated from his family. His mother’s memory may be the only remaining link to his former life. Through a series of epistolary narratives between two survivors named Anderson and Sid, Paulsen takes his audience into the aftermath of a great conflagration.

Anderson is eventually able to go outside across a field of broken cement to arrive at the Blue Comet Café where various stage performers and a sexy woman named Rosarita underscore our growing sense of human longing.

Paulsen’s physical gestures do well to set the tone for his character sketches, but his clownish behavior does little to interject humor into this dark world of human separation, longing and loss.

As an actor, Paulsen conveys his ideas best through character sketches. He displays childlike charm in depicting a construction worker named Jack who imagines going out on a date with an Italian woman named Rebecca.

With a quiet lyricism, he captures a sense of longing to be someone other than oneself in an encounter between a man drinking a milkshake while on vacation and an 11-year-old Taiwanese girl who innocently rides her bicycle in front of him to attract his attention.

There’s also the goofball appeal of a nerdy, eccentric who anthropomorphizes food through his conversation with biscuits, chicken and dessert during an imaginary picnic with a frustrated artist named Vincent Van Gogh.

There’s a quiet humor and charming lyricism to these scenes that shows Paulsen’s spiritual allegiance to Red Skelton.

Paulsen errs, however, by breaking up these moments with an eerie descent into prehistoric time when man is discovering how to create fire and first recognizing others beyond his sense of self.

All of these scenes work well as isolated monologues, but they do not cohere into a fitful whole. The only thing holding them all together is our image of fire as a force with which man must reckon. Ultimately, Paulsen fails to tie his scenes and character sketches together clearly enough to create a compelling drama.

The Tangle is structurally flawed, too, but for different reasons. A clown addresses the audience, relaying his story about the dynamics of human psychology in a struggle between a free self and a controlled self. Each of us is a compilation of actions, but these actions serve as a foundation for the controllers to wield their power over human behavior.

Paulsen makes some interesting observations about the human impulses of thirst, hunger and desire. At one end of the spectrum there is sexuality, a human urge that enables the controllers to exercise their utmost control. At the other end, there is the unpredictability of childhood, a message of freedom that befuddles the controllers. To resist the controllers is to face the master of controllers, the devil.

Paulsen loses his audience somewhat when he suddenly shifts to a story of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid on a Greyhound bus traveling north from Sacramento to Oakland. These two outlaws live a life of freedom and they are eventually arrested after a classic western shootout. Cassidy does relate a plan of escape. All of these elements of the story, though, only create a disconcerting surface reality to the clown’s more intriguing theory of human psychology.

Paulsen either needs to stick to creating lyrically charming character sketches or to do a better job at clarifying his narrative connections in his drama.

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