Posted by: strugglesome | April 12, 2011

A Class Act: PIFA Presents A Passing Wind

While some may mourn the death of the vaudeville tradition, its circuit stars and bizarre talents, I’m of the opinion that the little stage lives on even now, its spirit firmly inhabiting that all-knowing behemoth, YouTube. Think about it, where else can performers display a range of talents from applying eyeliner to breathing fire to exploiting their children and anything else in between. Warhol’s 15 minutes have rearranged themselves into 150,000 hits on a video, more, if it gets mentioned on a late night talk show. And so if Joseph Pujol, Le Petomane, the great fartiste, had lived today, he probably would have had quite a following on the internet. But maybe its better that Pujol lived and died in a time when the internet was yet to become a twinkle in anyone’s eye, because his rare talents really were better suited to a crowded theater then to a dorm room at 3 in the morning. Some things you just need to see live for them to make any sense, and if an act based on flatulence isn’t among them then I don’t know what is.

The first thing you should prepare yourself for if planning on attending Seth Rozin’s new original musical, A Passing Wind, presented by the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, is that you need to examine your sense of humor, and, assuming it’s in the urbane area, dial it down several notches until you’ve achieved English Rugby fan levels, and then just let it live there for a little bit. Because while the piece itself is smart, the humor has all the subtly of a mallet swung at your head, which is okay,  appropriate even, given the subject matter. Small town baker Joseph Pujol ( Damon Kirsche) dreams of making it big off of his remarkable sphincter, as his own father once did (it seems that amazing anuses are something of a family trait). So, despite the gentle protests of his wife, Elizabeth (Leah Walton) Pujol heads to the city of light to have his day in the sun, and despite the sneering of the artistic elite Claude Monet (Peter Schmitz), Sarah Bernhart (Maureen Torsney-Weir) and Erik Satie (Jered McLenigan) manages to achieve quite about bit of success all thinks to his superior posterior (which is also the title of a duet he croons with Moulin Rouge owner Henri Oller, played by Ian Bedford).  Sigmund Freud (Tim Moyer) may think Pujol’s act is all a kind of repressed emotional eruption, and Oller’s girlfriend Angele Thibodeau (Laura Catlaw) may pout and scream for want of stage time, but nothing can stop Le Pentomane (which literally translates to fartomanic, for all you linguists out there). Nothing but the great war, of course, which graces the stage like a character making an untimely entrance and sweeps us from Act one to Act two, in which the great entertainer comes to terms with the fallout of the war and the sad fate of all one hit (or one fart, if you prefer) wonders. And so, having shared his unconventional talent with the world, Pujol returns to the bakery and his family and his real life,  leaving the world of public demonstrations of flatulence behind him . And if you see a pun in that last sentence, good.

Conceived, directed, written and composed by Seth Rozin, with additional lyrics by David Goldstein, this work is clearly a labor of love by all involved. Joining Rozin is music director, orchestrator and sound designer Daniel Perelstein, who also conducts the orchestra and plays keyboard and accordion. Obviously these people know how to multi-task. This piece is what is typically called a chamber musical, a small-scale piece with a limited selection of instruments (bass/trombone by Andrew Nelson, clarinet/saxophone by Rob Green and  percussion by Lee Morrison) played in an intimate space. And considering the scale of this cast and production that’s perfectly appropriate, we are close but not too close to Peter Whinnery’s adorable and effective set, and his lighting nicely highlights Anna Frangiosa’s costumes which flatter everyone on stage and feature hats that would make the cast of Downton Abby drool. Perelstein’s orchestra is excellent, and his sound design scoring the many toots and breakages of wind emitted by Pujol over the course of his stage act are disgustingly accurate and impeccably timed (and as we know, in showbiz timing is everything). And as singers the small cast is excellent, with nary a wrong note, each of them discharging their solo and firing out fart jokes with deft skill and talent. The only issues come with the play itself, which, though it is beautifully delivered, isn’t exactly full baked.

For one thing, the piece as a whole hasn’t quite decided what it’s really saying. It paints the respected artists of the day like Monet and Bernhart and Satie as patronizing pretentious money hungry harpies, tearing each other and Pujol apart out of jealous spite. And that may be partially true, although I’m pretty sure Monet spent most of his time after 1883 in Giverny, his home in the countryside, and Satie was just embarking on his musical career in the beginning of the 1890’s, in which case people who live in glass houses really ought to be more careful throwing stones. And while Freud did spend time in Paris during this period but by the 1890’s was living in Vienna as a docent at the University. But tossing aside all historical accuracy (because who needs that sort of thing and it’s all played like “History, the sitcom” anyway), let’s look at this more metaphorically. Rozin is contrasting the pretension of the Paris elite with Pujol’s humble if remarkable talent, and in looking at the two side by side we the audience ought to understand that in his own way Pujol gave something of great value to the world. At least, I think that’s what we are supposed to be seeing, because it’s really rather unclear. Is Pujol just an entertainer, or is he something more? The value of what Pujol is doing is obscured by the swirl of activity around him, the catty artists and the Freudian analysis war for attention while Pujol’s act, charming as it is, is essentially glorified toilet humor, funny, yes, meaningful, not really. And yet Kirsche’s Pujol begs to be taken seriously, jeopardizing his relationship with the long-suffering Elizabeth (serenely and sweetly played by Walton) and ruining himself in the eyes of the world all for a little gas. And while Rozin’s songs are fantastic, from the gentle Begin the Baguette to the pattery Vive L’Arte to the melancholy The World Seems Different Now, they don’t all really fit together. Take, for example, Life Begets Life, a triumphant and excellently delivered ode to art-making sung by Torseny-Weir’s Bernhardt. It’s beautiful, it’s victorious, it’s stirring, but it makes absolutely no sense that Bernhardt, up until this point a fierce critic of Pujol and his feats of fart, would encourage him with this resounding battle cry in favor of continuing to create. So while we have a nicely paced, well staged (thanks to Rozin and choreographer Karen Getz) well produced well acted and sung piece of theater, it doesn’t feel like a fully developed work.  But with such an ambitious undertaking perhaps it’s enough that it makes us laugh and gasp and even feel something for a man who makes his living passing gas.

A Passing Wind will be playing from now until the 17th of April. Pick of tickets here, and bring the kids, because while they might not care about Paris they are sure to love a play about farts.

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