Kevin R. Elder might be a victim of high expectations. Over the last couple years, he's evolved into one of the Tricklock Company's superstars, one of the most talented members of a very talented group of people. His futuristic masque, Splinters, which Elder created and performed with fellow Tricklocker Summer Olsson, was more than just the best thing I saw at this year's Revolutions International Theatre Festival. It was actually one of the most inventive pieces of theater I've ever seen—period.
Directed by Olsson, Elder's new one-man show, Tangential, just opened last weekend at the Tricklock Performance Space. Let's cut to the chase here. I enjoyed it. A simple white set consisting of a bench, some bare bones drawings and a bunch of hanging clothespins gives Elder the blank slate he needs to spin a series of yarns revolving mostly around his screwed-up romantic life. As its title suggests, the show goes off in plenty of entertaining directions, and several bits in Tangential are totally freakin' hilarious.
Yet, for my tastes, there was something missing. I had a good time at the show, but by the time I left, I felt like I'd witnessed a fine piece of unfinished business.
The show is cleverly structured around Elder's ridiculously child-like drawings—some of them mind-bendingly abstract—of different characters, events and concepts in his show. Tangential begins with a single swirling doodle that's supposed to represent the beginning of the show. It ends with a simple circle representing the end. In between are a bunch of ex-girlfriends, several current friends, Charlie Chaplin's mustache and a woman fellating a horse, among other things.
Many shows of this sort focus on the self-conscious nature of putting on this kind of single-person show. Elder takes this to an extreme. In a way, his show is about his show, a mirror reflecting back into another mirror. A large number of his routines revolve around the process and absurdity of creating this variety of self-absorbed theater in the first place.
I think this might be the show's biggest weakness. In one particularly funny bit, Elder briefly dives into the old Buster Keaton versus Charlie Chaplin debate, coming out on the side of Keaton. A man after my own heart!
One of the main reasons I prefer Keaton's movies to Chaplin's, though, is that Keaton doesn't have a trace of self-absorption. He isn't trying to create fine art (even though he does). He isn't trying to philosophize (even if his best movies are almost pure metaphysics). He's merely trying to create the funniest, most jaw-dropping movies he can possibly make.
Despite his undeniable genius, Chaplin obsesses too much over his own role in making his films. The result is that even his best films can be a little corny, because he's often intent on delivering some kind of message in addition to entertaining his audience. Keaton's films have no message. They're purely designed to entertain.
In Tangential, Elder also seems to struggle to deliver some kind of message, a philosophy of life that, as he himself puts it in one scene, seems "thoughty" but doesn't actually mean very much. This performer has so much unbelievable talent. I've seen it again and again in Tricklock shows. Here, though, he doesn't seem to be stretching himself as much as he could. He doesn't seem to realize that he doesn't need to present big ideas to create a good show.
On another note, he also seemed to cuss more than strictly necessary. Now, I enjoy a good bout of offensive profanity as much as the next guy, but here it seems a little forced. Cussing works best when it's spaced out to pack the most punch.
Finally, on the night I saw the show, Elder didn't seem as locked into the performance as he usually is. For some reason, he seemed slightly awkward.
I'm probably being too hard on the guy. I'll tell you one thing—most of the audience laughed their asses off. Elder is at his best in Tangential when he's either abusing the audience, which he does with alarming regularity, or when he's going off on some loony tangent. I wish he'd thrown in a few more tangents, but most people with a high tolerance for creative smut will still probably enjoy the show.
Just don't bring a date if you plan to sit in the front row. Trust me on that one. Consider it my little gift to you.