Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August 2008.
“Oh the worms crawl in
And the worms crawl out
And the worms play pinochle
On your snout.”
It ain’t easy being dead.
In addition to the above mentioned indignities, you rarely get invited to parties and your children never call. Neither McCain nor Obama is courting your vote. Talk about the great Silent Majority!
And to make matters worse, all the newspapers will print following your demise is the drabbest of obituaries containing “Just the facts, M’am.” Even if you do submit a decent obituary, the papers cut out all the personal stuff. God forbid an obituary should reflect any of the personality of the person who passed. I know because I’ve written obituaries. Each was an effort in frustration because I couldn’t say what made these people tick. And every time, even though I know the journalistic protocol and followed all the rules, the papers hacked them to pieces. I’ve had dangerously seditious sentences like “She loved baking and traveling with her family in the desert southwest” stricken. Sheesh!
So I think the world would be a much better place if real newspaper obituaries could be as honest and well-written as Bob Balogh’s fake ones. Balogh writes obituaries for people who never existed and reads them aloud. He does this on the radio, on public access television, and now every Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m. live in his Micro Theatre on the second floor of 311 North Street in Pittsfield through September 7.
In our ongoing Summer 2008 one-sided dialogue about “real theatre” I know there are many people who don’t consider one man reading from a piece of paper to be theatre. I discussed this question at some length back in 2005 when I reviewed Dirck Toll for the first time, and I refer you to that review and to my favorite quotation from director Peter Brook:
“...take an empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and that is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.”
By that definition, what Balogh is presenting is theatre. I realize that the “paper in hand” aspect may be off-putting to some, but there isn’t anything in Brook’s definition that says the act of theatre needs to be memorized, or even verbal (then you get into the increasingly blurred boundaries between theatre and dance, but luckily we don’t need to go there today.)
Balogh calls what he is doing theatre. He calls the space he does it in a theatre. And he does it in front of an audience. Whether you like it or not, it’s theatre. It is just as much “real theatre” as what they do around the corner at Barrington Stage Company.
That’s why I went and that’s why I’m writing this review.
So, is it good theatre? Well, without big sets, costumes, colored lights, etc. it certainly lacks spectacle. Just how spectacular is it being dead anyway? But it is entertaining. And it is carefully planned – this is not a “happening.” Balogh has selected seven of his fake obituaries, two songs, and a concluding piece, which he performs in a set order that remains the same from week to week. He performs on a small stage, which is specifically, although not spectacularly, lit. The area for the performance and the area for the audience are clearly separate.
Now in his 50’s, Balogh was born and raised in Danbury, Connecticut, and, after a stint in Vietnam, spent a few decades living and working in New York City. During that time he made the rounds of auditions and found a home at Theatre 22, an off-off-Broadway black box theatre owned and operated by veteran character actor Sidney Armus (1924-2002) with whom Balogh worked closely. So Balogh has a solid background in the theatre and an interesting life story that informs his writing.
In a recent interview with Judith Fairweather of The Advocate Balogh is quoted as saying about his New York theatre experience: “I knew I had something to offer and I didn’t need anyone’s approval for it.”
And that is actually the statement that made me want to go and see Balogh’s work. I think we have come to a time in American society were everyone wastes too much of their precious time waiting for someone to tell them they are old enough or good enough or smart enough or pretty enough to fulfill their dreams and that is bull. If you want to make theatre find a space, invite an audience, and do it. Don’t listen to all those people who have rules about what makes theatre “real.”
Each obituary is about a fictitious resident of the equally fictional Berkshire County towns of Backfish, Barbell, Cracklefoot, Slapdash, and Tailspin. They all have lovely alliterative triple-barreled names like Theodore Thunderclap Thistle, Jumbo Jefferson Jagger, or Yolanda Yalta Yeltsin, and they each die an imaginative though bloodless death at the age of 54 – causes range from a bad comb-over to severe humiliation. Before each one, Balogh lights one of the ten votive candles on a marble-topped lazy susan sitting on a little table that serves as the set. The music is a minor aside. Balogh plays guitar on the first song, "When My Father Died...," and accompanies the second, "When I Die...," by the shaking of two "personal rhythm accessories" (ie plastic eggs filled with beads).
Each obituary ends with note of the deceased's favorite baseball team. A remarkable number of them were Red Sox fans (only one was a Mets fan), and as a Yankees fan I wasn't sure whether I should be offended that my team was so woefully under-represented or happy that the Red Sox fans seemed to be dropping like flies..." There are lots of laughs to be had, but be warned that Balogh’s writing is sharply critical of the small-town life he observes here and local folks who object to newcomers, especially those who object to newcomers from New York City.
The Micro Theatre seats about 30 people, and I was a member of an audience of eight, which felt cozily sufficient on a warm August afternoon. Balogh makes the atmosphere relaxed and friendly, chatting with the audience before the show begins and taking questions after. There were people there who had heard Obituaries before and had come back for more, bringing along friends, and there were newcomers who said they wanted to come back again with their friends. That is easy to do when admission is free! So do call for reservations if you want one of those 30 seats to be yours.
Balogh’s Micro Theatre is part of the Artists on North collective at 311 North Street, right in the heart of Pittsfield’s downtown renaissance. It would be easy to combine a trip to see Obituaries with Sunday brunch and some gallery hopping and shopping. I had no trouble finding parking on North Street on a Sunday afternoon.
Bob Balogh's Obituaries will be performed Sundays at 2 p.m. beginning Aug. 2 and running through Sept. 7 in his Micro Theatre at 311 North St. in Pittsfield, MA. The show runs about an hour with no intermission and is suitable for the whole family. Admission is free but seating is limited so reservations are required. Call 413-442-2223 for information and reservations.
If you enjoy Balogh's writing you can order his book Greater Backfish Journal online at Amazon or pick up a copy at the Stockbridge Booksellers.
Micro Theatre is an independent performance facility specializing in experimental theatre, one-character plays, poetry readings, acoustic music shows and standup comedy. To book the space, at no cost, call 413-442-2223 or 413-212-7180 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Micro Theatre is part of the Artists On North collective. Be sure to check out the superb artwork in the hallways (but be careful it doesn't fall on you like it did on me!) and visit the galleries during Pittsfield's "3rd Thursday" nights.
You can hear Balogh on WBCR-LP, 97.7fm Wednesdays from 9-11 a.m. and on WPKN, 89.5fm on alternate Thursdays from 2-5:30 p.m. His public access TV show Greater Backfish Radio airs on Community Television for the Southern Berkshires (CTSB-TV), which can be received on Channel 15 in the townships of Great Barrington, Lee, Lenox, Sheffield, and Stockbridge, MA.
Balogh also hosts the "Words Out Loud" open mike for poets, musicians, etc. twice each month:
Every first Thursday, 7pm, at Mason Library, 231 Main St. Great Barrington, MA
Every first Friday, 7pm, at Ramsdell Library, 1087 Main St. Housatonic, MA
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008