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The Make-Up Man 

The first superstar of television was Milton Berle. He imported vaudeville shtick directly into the new medium. One of his most famous running gags went like this. In the middle of a skit, someone would happen to mention the word "make-up." Immediately, a little man would rush onto the set, carrying a huge make-up case. "Make-up!" he would shout and pummel Berle in the face with a giant sponge, releasing a huge cloud of face powder. Berle would stumble around, coughing and sputtering. Then he would resume the skit.

Rene J.F. Piazza is a comedian of the "Uncle Miltie" school. He's not a standup comic so much as a fall-down comic. And there aren't many left. In fact, it may not be too much to say he's unique. Uniquely hilarious or uniquely corny? That depends on your own particular sense of fun. In any case, Piazza has acquired a good-size band of loyal followers, many from Jefferson Parish, where he has taught drama for years, and where he has valiantly striven to create an ongoing after-school theater program. The cornerstone of this program has been a steady stream of comedies that Piazza himself has written, directed and starred in. You might expect an overweening ego, but Piazza Productions has a family feeling -- as though the head clown, by his own effusive merry-making, creates a permissive mood in which everyone else feels free to wholeheartedly join in.

This year, Piazza has been sprucing up his presentations. In October, he brought his Dracula: The Whole Story to the True Brew. And while the show retained the joyful anarchy that is his trademark, it was perhaps the most coherent and best crafted of his efforts. Most recently, he offered us A Christmas Carol: The Whole Story at the UNO Downtown Theater. There was a second subtitle: The Final Chapter. For, having done the show annually over the past 12 years (in locations such as Movie Pitchers, the North Star Theater and the Rock 'n' Bowl Cafe), Piazza decided the time has come to call it quits.

In the Final Chapter, this milestone is celebrated in typically screwball fashion. The house lights go down. The stirring music from the movie Rocky fills the theater. A huge Roman numeral "XII," dramatically backlit, appears on stage. A gang of "boxers in training" come jogging through the audience. All are calling "Rocky, Rocky." Finally, Piazza himself enters. "You're not Rocky," the boxers say and leave in disappointment. "My name begins with an 'R,'" Piazza pleads. End of joke.

Now, of course, it's possible that when Piazza conceived this prelude, he meant to create a comic fantasia on a duodecimal theme that referenced a metaphor of the aspiring human spirit from a popular movie about prize fighting. But, it's also possible, the man just loves nonsense. In whatever form. If it leads somewhere, fine. If it doesn't, oh well. Not to worry. On to the next thing.

A Christmas Carol: The Whole Story takes place anywhere and nowhere, at anytime and at no time. It begins in Victorian London, sort of. But, Scrooge shares an apartment complex with Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, her wolf, Hansel and Gretel, their witch and Prince Charming, among others. The Ghost of Christmas Present is actually a ghost writer, who has apparently penned most of the world's masterpieces. A party given by the young Scrooge is attended by 1970s vintage hippies and ends in a game of "Twister." While the Ghost of Christmas Present is Ethel Merman's sister, whose presence summons up the audition from A Chorus Line. But interruptions by disparate elements (a la Milton Berle's "make-up" man) are in themselves a running gag. Sometimes, a funny quirk of logic brings these spasms on, as with the Hawaiian hula dancers. Sometimes the connections seem pretty arbitrary.

However, it's hard to say if the show would be improved or weakened by a more critical attitude toward the material. In that sense, Piazza Productions are not unlike the celebrated Morgus the Magnificent television shows. There is something eccentric and goofy in its very charm.

Ten actors played 41 parts. Among the standouts were Stacy Taliancich, Veronica Oliver, Michael Sullivan, Chelle Duke and Kevin Songy.

I have to say I think Piazza is wise to retire this show and move on to something new. In fact, with the following mnemonic device, I would like to call for a general moratorium:

"In the season of stockings and reindeer on the roofs,

God spare us, one and all, from Christmas Spoofs."

click to enlarge Ebenezer Scrooge (Rene J.R. Piazza) and Bob - Cratchit (Daryl Cade) talk about Christmas and - money in Piazza's recent mounting of A - Christmas Carol: The Whole Story.
  • Ebenezer Scrooge (Rene J.R. Piazza) and Bob Cratchit (Daryl Cade) talk about Christmas and money in Piazza's recent mounting of A Christmas Carol: The Whole Story.
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