Ochre House Gets Hip to '50s Comic Lord Buckley with The Passing Show
Ben Bryant, left, is Lord Buckley, 1950s hipster comic, in Ochre House’s The Passing Show.
Hipster, flipsters and finger-poppin' daddies, it's time to slip your orbs toward one Lord Buckley. He was a regal cat-daddy, an original, a performer of jazz-infused stand-up drawn from the scribblings of master scribes. Ochre House theater's own in-house hipster Matthew Posey has penned a new play, and directed it, in tribute to Buckley. The Passing Show is a trip and a half, babies. An hour and a half of wayback weirdosity set one night in the 1950s in a smoky cabaret in Greenwich Village, the last time the Lord would bless a stage.
Based on the real deal, Posey's play-with-music has Buckley, played by Dallas actor Ben Bryant, riffing his own retelling of Shakespeare's King Lear, the story of "three daughters who think their old dad is off his wig-bubble," to capsulize it in the character's hip-semantics. Dressed, as Buckley frequently was, in a tuxedo, pith helmet and waxed mustache, Bryant plays all the roles in Lear. Five hairpieces hanging on elastic pulleys from the ceiling help change his own wig-bubble into Lear's daughters Cordelia, Regan and Goneril, plus the Dukes of Gloucester and Kent. Good with voices, Bryant is a one-man orchestra of accents and intonations. He sweats and struts his hour-plus on this stage, doing a swinging' impersonation of one of America's now-forgotten sui generis comics.
Posey has a penchant for the odd and forgotten. His shows always contain a touch of vaudeville — cheap props, bluesy music, corny jokes tossed out with a leer (and in this case, a Lear). His little company of Exposition Avenue irregulars knows how to play every note in that strange Ochre House key. The Passing Show isn't one of this theater's strongest productions, but it's enjoyable. Bryant is expert at spewing the long, breathless chunks of Buckley-ized Bard, but when he starts singing, his tone-deafness flattens the melodies of the original songs by Justin Locklear and Trey Pendergrass (with lyrics adapted from the Shakespeare play). Bummer.
Locklear, on keyboard and guitars, and Pendergrass on drums, remain onstage, providing a groovy jazz-blues underscore as Bryant stands at the microphone, scatting the saga of Lear and his ungrateful offspring. In the evening's best musical moment, Pendergrass steps forward to croon a smooth, Sinatra-esque ballad. He can sing.
Carla Parker plays Buckley's wife. While he's holding court downstage, she's behind him, doing a Vanna White thing with letters on a signboard, spelling out cliches about flattery and privilege and where they get you. She dances a "living ballet," too. It's strange and awkward but in this show, it's just part of the contrived madness.
Buckley rode the end of vaudeville in the 1940s and was a regular on the New York City coffeehouse scene in the '50s. He bebop-talked his stylized versions of Scrooge, Marc Antony's oration, the Gettysburg Address and the life of Jesus, whom he called "The Nazz." Born Richard Buckley, he adopted the accent and bearing of British nobility, layered under a cool jingle-jangle delivery that would influence Beat Generation stars and, later, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Norman Mailer, Ken Kesey and Tom Waits. Buckley smoked marijuana, dabbled in LSD and died in his 50s after a minor scandal over an arrest for lack of a "cabaret card," which licensed nightclub performers back in the day.
Here's a little of Lear, Lord Buckley style:
Milords, Miladies of the Royal Court
I should like to salute William Shakespeare.
In this language he's called Willie the Shake.
You know why they called him Willie the Shake?
Because he shook everybody.
They give him a nickel's worth of ink and five cents worth of paper,
he sat down, wrote up such a breeze, brrt, that's all there was, Jack,
there was no more.
The Passing Show may not fly in everybody's orbit, but, as Buckley would say, "If you dig it, make sure you dig it well."
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