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The Best Solo Theatre Artist You Ought To Have Heard Of

April 21, 2009

images.jpegThere aren't many theatre artists / companies whose work I simply have to see or curse myself if I'm out of town and am therefore forced to miss. The late great theatre company Theatre de la Jeune Lune is -- or rather was -- one of these. The British stage director Neil Bartlett is another. The solo theatre artist / standup comedian Will Franken is a third.

Many people probably share my views on Jeune Lune and Bartlett -- Perhaps not household names, they are well known within the performing arts field. Franken, however, is in a different league. He's the sort of performer that ought to be playing sold-out arenas. But despite gigs with or auditions for such well-known entities as the Upright Citizens Brigade, NBC's Last Comic Standing and the British World Stands Up comedy show in recent years -- not to mention favorable reviews in the New York Times and many Bay Area publications (Franken used to be based on the west coast) -- word about the performer's brilliance still remains largely under wraps. I'm trying to figure out why.

Having cursed myself for missing the New York-based performer's last San Francisco show, I was pleased to finally make it out to The Purple Onion Comedy Club last weekend to catch Franken's latest west coast stint. He was on better form than I think I've ever seen him.

When I think of Franken hunched in his statutory threadbare blazer and tatty jeans under the lights interviewing his own reflection, competing in a poetry slam first as John Milton reading from the opening of Paradise Lost and then as some self-obsessed teenage rapper making lame rhymes (the latter beats the former by a long margin), or telling a funny little story about how his shoes make him feel young, my day immediately brightens. He was marvelous. His comedy flowed effortlessly from one absurdist bit to another. Nothing seemed labored. For the first time, the performer seemed perfectly in control of his out-of-control world. He actually appeared relaxed.

Franken's act almost always defies description, though I've tried on numerous occasions over past few years to articulate the experience of witnessing his work. Perhaps the best way to consider Franken's act is to think of it as a journey into the sticky, mothballed recesses of the human mind. He's like Virginia Woolf channeling Lenny Bruce and the Pythons with just a touch of Bill O'Reilly thrown in to rock the boat. It's no wonder that a Bay Area newspaper dubbed Franken "Best Alternative to Psychadelic Drugs" a few years ago for its annual "Best of the Bay" issue. A theatre critic colleague of mine, Robert Avila of the San Francisco Bay Guardian came up with a beautiful way of describing the performer:

"Imagine a surreal-estate agent guiding you through some Escher-like architectural marvel, where each room is its own deeply funny, satirical dream, every passageway a verbal wormhole, and in the corner a shaggy high priest of nothing's-sacredness is fiddling with a bunch of knobs on what looks like an espresso maker."

I've witnessed performances by Franken in which there were too many wormholes with not enough earth to hold the terrain together, where he's disappeared down a hole and left the rest of us scratching our heads on the surface. But this time, there was just enough sense to keep the madness in check. By the time I left the venue, my face ached from laughing so hard.

Franken is the sort of comedian who defies categorization, which is what makes him so great. Unfortunately, this refusal to fit into a tidy commercial box might be what has prevented him so far from selling out the Hollywood Bowl. I wish he would move back to the Bay Area.


  • I LOVE WILL!!!! I haven't seen him perform in a while which means I've kicked myself often, too often. But, I agree totally and whole heartedly.

    I think SF is the place for him. And, I do think he can "take over the world" with his comedy. Maybe the old ways of attaining success in entertainment just aren't going to work anymore....
    ..that's a whole other topic...

    Thank you for highlighting Will!

    By Blogger Christian Cagigal, At April 21, 2009 at 3:28 PM  

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