Is This Thing On?
Reviewed by Cicely Binford
If prostitution is the world’s oldest profession, then comedy must be the world’s toughest. Those who choose it as a livelihood must be gluttons for punishment; it can be cruel, exhausting, and terrifying in equal measure. But oh, when the laughs come rolling in and the cheers and applause ring out, suddenly it’s all worth it. But that constant roller coaster takes its toll, as we’ve seen time and time again, often to tragic consequences. Comedy is serious business.
Comedian/actor Andrea Gibbs and director Zoe Pepper bring Zoe Coombs Marr‘s treatise on stand-up comedy Is This Thing On? to The Blue Room this spring. ITTO? splits a single comedian named Brianna into five different characters, ranging in age from young adult to mature. We witness Brianna’s rocky trajectory through her stand-up routine, which is often uncomfortably personal, frequently awkward, and sometimes quite desperate. Brianna reveals her self-discoveries in a self-deprecating fashion and we witness a woman unravel before our eyes.
Andrea Gibbs plays Brianna in her mid-thirties; she’s been hosting a comedy room for years, working at the bar to earn some cash, scraping by, trying to keep a lid on her regrets and self-doubt. Her splintered self at different ages exists simultaneously in the same space; sometimes they appear to be aware of each other, but mostly deliver their routines without interacting. Brianna’s friend, former housemate and fellow comedian (who is referenced but never seen) has hit the big time and left her behind. When the stand-up gets stood up, she spirals out of control.
Gibbs reigns supreme in ITTO? because she has a firm grasp on the character, and she’s able to pull from her own experience as a stand-up to give Brianna that extra bit of honesty. She knows how to get a laugh – even if it’s at her character’s expense – so there’s a whole lot of subtlety and dexterity in this brash, noisy character. Daisy Coyle and Nicola Bartlett at the youngest and eldest ends of the Brianna spectrum add the most perspective to the character, the former book-ending the piece with a naivete that belies just a hint of the beginnings of Brianna’s bitterness.
Less successful at getting thoroughly inside a comic’s skin were the middle Briannas – Samantha Maclean as the aspiring vet student and Giulia Petrocchi as the jaded vet student with some new personal insights. They give us a before and after look at the character but don’t quite have a stand-up’s delivery and don’t seem quite at ease addressing the opening night audience and working the crowd. Let’s chalk that up to opening night nerves, and I have no doubt that the second and third weeks in will see a more assured performance from all the ladies as they get a feel for how audiences are reacting.
Zoe Pepper‘s direction is bold and unforgiving in moments; she pushes the character(s) to the extreme, and when they dare to go to the extreme with it, it’s fantastic. The tangled mic chords do give us cause for anxiety, but perhaps this works in the show’s favor, as it is ultimately symbolic of Brianna’s tangled-up interior. The absurd world of the piece is best showcased in moments when the actors break the comedy routine and do something weird like laughing Brianna’s signature laugh in chorus, for example.
Ultimately this piece swings wildly from the entertaining to the uncomfortable; we watch a comic bomb, horribly. We get too close and too personal with Brianna. We wonder what on earth makes her get up and do it all again, when it seems like life heaps too much shit her way, when things aren’t funny anymore. She does keep finding the punchline, though, and ITTO? keeps finding its way back from the uncomfortable to the entertaining.
Is This Thing On? runs until October 8 at The Blue Room. For more information and tickets, visit The Blue Room website here.