by Gail M. Burns, May 2005
Much to my surprise and delight, I was invited to Caffè Lena on May 1st to see and review humorist Dirck Toll in the world premiere of his satirical/theatrical monologue entitled Irregular Opposition. Dirck Toll bills himself as a humorist. A Schenectady resident, he has performed around the Capital Region and the nation since 1990. I understand that his recent performances have not been local, and that, up until the genesis of this piece, his routines have taken on a more typical stand-up format with a series of interrelated stories, rather than a continuous narrative with a central character. In Irregular Opposition Toll is taking his work in a new direction, more towards storytelling than stand-up. This is work in the mode of Spaulding Gray, rather than Bill Cosby.
I often include listings for stand-up comedy, performance art, and storytelling on this Web site because I consider them theatrical performances. But are they theatre? If they aren’t what are they? And just what is “theatre” anyway? According to legendary 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.”
So, what is the difference between Toll’s monologue and a one-person show, such as Full Gallop which I reviewed at Shakespeare & Company last summer? Virtually nothing. So why would I consider them differently? Because of the words used to describe them. Toll calls himself a humorist and his piece, of which he is the author, a satirical/theatrical monologue. In Full Gallop Annette Miller called herself an actress performing a role in a play by Mark Hampton. But neither of them is playing him/herself. Both are acting in front of an audience to entertain and educate.
Essentially, Toll is a writer. He has written and performed his humor. He has written and published his humor. He brings his writing to life in performance because he has something to say and saying it on a stage is louder than saying it in print. And to that end the title of Toll’s published collection of short stores is Loud (Hill Press, 1992, $5.50 (I think))
Is Irregular Opposition theatre? Yes, yes it is. It is quite straight forward and pure theatre actually, with just one actor/author relating directly to an intimate crowd. The story has a beginning, a middle, and an end - an exposition and a denouement. Toll narrates, not as himself, but as an unnamed protagonist, a gentleman who, upon having his bicycle stolen, invents a new bike theft prevention device with gives the unauthorized rider an electrical shock. This is on the theory that the law allows the use of reasonable force to protect one’s possessions, and that it doesn’t stipulate where you personally have to be when said force is administered. This kind of precise satire is typical of Toll’s style and his gently loopy sense of humor.
The protagonist proceeds to develop and market this marvel, but, on the day of its release and concurrent newspaper publicity, a headline appears linking cycling to hair loss. Needless to say the invention tanks, but the protagonist smells a rat and goes in search of the source of the headline. I won’t spoil the plot by going any further in my description but suffice it to say that our anti-hero has several splendid and amusing adventures as Toll delivers gentle digs at our society’s lust for conspicuous consumption and novelty and the ways in which big business manipulates those manias.
One thing that interested me was the disconnect between the Dirck Toll I saw perform, and the Dirck Toll who was marketed to me. For instance, in his publicity, Toll doesn’t have a face. There is no reason for every performer to give way to the public penchant for nosiness and include personal information in his/her bio, but most performers do display their faces. Four photographs appear on Toll’s press release and all you see of him is a mouth and chin in one, and possibly an ear in another.
So you can imagine my surprise when Toll emerged on stage with a face, and a rather pleasant one at that. The press release had led me to expect that Toll might conceal his face on stage as well as in his publicity stills, but Toll appeared bare faced and clean shaven. He reminded me of Dave Barry, another humorist who I saw deliver a monologue of his own creation recently. Because I had imagined Toll hiding behind masks and props, I was actually more comfortable when, after his brief opening act (Yes, Dirck Toll opened for Dirck Toll), he donned a pair of sunglasses for most of Irregular Opposition. Not being able to see his eyes enabled me to disassociate the actor from the message in a way that isn’t possible in a traditional stand-up performance. But overall Toll’s press had led me to expect something more bizarre, edgier, possibly angrier. Instead I found Toll sweet. I had expected Toll to stick pins in the inflated balloons of social silliness, when instead he batted them around in an entertaining manner. No bang, but a good show nonetheless. And there is no doubt that it is harder to keep a balloon from hitting the floor than to merely pop it.
The production values, as you might imagine, were minimal. The Black Box Theatre at Caffè Lena is not a large or an elaborately equipped space. The set consisted of a green panel on which two circles were inscribed – one formed of inward pointing arrows and the other formed of outward pointing ones – which made an interesting trompe l’oeille effect as the latter appeared larger than the former. There were lights – Toll turned them on at the beginning and off at the end. And, I am glad to say, there was no artificial amplification. Toll made himself heard using nothing but the instrument God gave him. Toll’s vocal delivery reminded me of Don Adams as Maxwell Smart, a voice Adams claimed to have based on the speech patterns of former Hollywood “thin man” William Powell.
Toll did have a costume, which I assume he designed himself, consisting of a pair of khakis, a pair of sandals, a short sleeved shirt in a semi-tropical print, and, most of the time, the aforementioned sunglasses. I know this was a costume and not just what he happened to be wearing that day because he was wearing something else, something far more flamboyant and stand-up-comic-ish, when he performed the opening act.
So, who is Dirck Toll? Darned if I know, but he has a very cute little preschool-aged daughter who greeted his every entrance with a cry of “Daddy!” I suspect that Dirck Toll is a stage name or nom de plume, but I had a feeling that if I asked his daughter, “What’s your father’s name?” the answer would have been “Daddy!” so I didn’t try. Could Dirck Toll be an anagram? I took some Scrabble® letters and tried rearranging them and came up with Trick Doll (or Doll Trick) and Dick Troll (or…well, we won’t go there!) Cute, but hardly revealing of the truth. Maybe next time I see him his daughter will be old enough to spill the beans, or old enough to know not to!
I am sorry to say that I don't know of any future performances of Irregular Opposition at this time, but if one comes your way, or another opportunity to see Toll perform arises, I would encourage you to go. To learn more about Dirck Toll (and see those faceless photos) click here.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005