Thursday, September 20, 2007

Notes from Canada Journal

(I am riding in a car with my sister TORI, being driven by my cousin PIP. Another car cuts us off in traffic.)

TORI: Wow, that guy's a jerk!

ME: Hey, you don't know what that guy's story is. For all we know, like, his baby could be dying or something. He'd be a real fucking tragic figure then, huh? And wouldn't you feel bad?


PIP: Well, he'd still be jerk. He'd just be a jerk with a dead baby.


So my uncle tells my brother-in-law and I to hop into the van. The new guy looks at me expectantly, and I have to rapidly weigh a number of factors to determine who gets the front seat: on the one hand, I'm an eldest son; on the other hand, he's older than I am; on the other hand, I'm a blood relation; on the other hand (this is now apparently some kind of Hindu god doing the counting) he's married to my elder sister.

Not that the decision really matters -- and the bulk of the problem here is my own paranoia. But the fact that I'm thinking in these terms at all indicated that I'm currently in Canada, and it's the first time I've visited my relatives since performing the show. It somehow failed to occur to me that having produced a script about them (to fairly glowing reviews) would constitute Big News amidst my family. Matt Everett's musings about my relationship with my father have apparently made the rounds, and

eeeagh. May I take a moment to freak the fuck out about this, please? The vast array of taboos I've broken? All the angst and the anger and the profanity? Dear God, have they found my blogs? Exactly how much of my personal life is public knowledge?

Okay, I'm done now.

But being with my family again is a vaguely bizarre experience. After all, they're characters now, having provided any number of key emotional moments or lines of dialogue. I find it strange, how close I feel to them; but then I think, oh. Duh. I spent my summer on the road with them, having taken them to every performance with me.

This has changed my relationship with them in some subtle way I can't quite articulate. But I had to place them within the confines of a very artificial construct in order for that to take place, and I can't help wondering whether or not that's healthy.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Late Reviews and Another Thought

Two more reviews of the show have popped up, one from Fringe blogger Caitlin Gilmet:

"I bow to Phillip, who has truly come into his own over the last few years. Not only is he probably the best writer I saw all Fringe, he's also found his own voice in performance (I saw his third in a single day), an energy and a humor that make him an undeniable talent. You can see what those summers of Fringing hard, attending shows and taking notes, have brought to his work: Phillip is a student of writers and performers who has synthesized those lessons into his own form of mastery. There's a Yiddish saying (Tsu vos men iz gevoynt in der yugnt, azoy tut men oyf der elter): That which is practiced in youth will be pursued in old age. I can hardly wait to see what Phillip will be up to in coming years."

Plus another long, thoughful essay from Matt Everett, which I won't reprint here, but I do want to talk about one passage:

"The interesting thing about this family portrait is that it is neither angry nor self-pitying - both of which I was very grateful for as an audience member. There is no tortured ranting or weeping. There is no sentimental reconciliation. There is only the awkward relationship between a father and a son who have everything and nothing in common. Phillip never recounts a scene in which they both say they love each other, but he doesn’t need to. You can sense it in the way the artist paints a verbal portrait of his’s a mystery story that satisfies because it is about more than the nuts and bolts of solving a puzzle. It’s a family story that doesn’t shy away from the difficult moments, but also doesn’t dissolve into sentimentality."

The reason I want to look more closely at this is because this is a sentiment that was articulated to me on a number of different occasions -- that the show was such a refreshing change from the countless "woe-is-me" self-pity-fests that take over the Festival. But that's exactly what my show is. In fact, self-deprecating humor has been my schtick for nearly five years now -- my stage persona is that of many comedians, that kind of nebbishy, miserable, hand-wringing buffoon. So why do people react the way they do?

I see a lot of soul-searching autobiographical solo shows. Some are compelling. Most are dreadful. What's the difference? I think what it boils down to, for me, is the self-awareness of the performer. The underlying dynamic of my characters is not "I have such a miserable life, but I can joke about it, so it's a kind of triumph" -- the joke is that my characters' unhappiness is totally irrational. The fact that Penner is desperately miserable, in spite of the countless blessings in his life, is the very thing that makes him the object of ridicule.

This is another respect in which I wonder if my work isn't an extension of my spiritual thinking. So much of Eastern thought revolves around the necessity of transcending the self -- recognizing that one's identity is a conscious construction, and one in which we construct our own suffering more often than not. To choose to be unhappy in the face of a life full of blessings is the ultimate absurdity, and that's one of the things I find myself joking about more often than not.

Not that my awareness of this stops me from being desperately unhappy about many aspects of my own life. But at least I recognize how ludicrous it is.