23 December 2010

Catharsis, or ‘The Pee-Wee Herman Show’

Theater as religious experience:
Brothers and sisters, let us scream really loud.

I had intended to write about The Pee-Wee Herman Show, now playing in a limited engagement at New York’s Stephen Sondheim Theater, without any reference to the scandals that several years ago beset Pee-Wee’s creator, Paul Reubens. Even when those were current and at their height, they seemed so idiotic that they gave teapot tempests a bad name, and they seemed to have nothing at all to do with Reubens’ art. Watching the show, however, I understood that I’d been wrong.

For in the event, the great pleasures of seeing Pee-Wee again are not merely nostalgic. Yes, we are delighted as we should be, back in the company of a familiar figure from childhood (or, in my case, second childhood). But that’s only part of what’s going on. We are also feeling catharsis of an unexpected yet thoroughly authentic sort. Reubens has weathered many a storm — and Pee-Wee is still standing, heroic, defiant and disruptive as ever, and utterly indomitable.

What’s more, Lynne Marie Stewart (Miss Yvonne)
is still the Most Beautiful Woman in Puppet Land.

Watching the earlier incarnations of the Playhouse on television, I never found the character of Pee-Wee the most interesting or amusing of the many attractions on display. He was, if anything, ringmaster of an exceptionally giddy circus, and my attitude toward him was close to that of Reba the Mail Lady (S. Epatha Merkerson) — gently bemused exasperation — even while the show’s delirious art direction (an orgy of retro pop art) and Lynne Marie Stewart’s Miss Yvonne proved irresistibly compelling. In order to sample the nonpareil treats, I had to put up with a dose of the Pee-Wee who had assembled them.

¡Viva la Computadora!
Reubens and the combustibly gifted Garcia

Today, however, Pee-Wee’s persona — childlike, anarchic, often irritating but always wildly imaginative — resonates all the more strongly, simply because it would have been so easy for Reubens to walk away from it, or to bury it altogether. Indeed, for too long, he did just that. So we’re more appreciative, perhaps more grateful and admiring, to see Pee-Wee now, springing up there. It’s little less than a triumph of the human spirit.

He cavorts with most of the energy he possessed 30 years ago, his voice somewhat huskier but no less insistent, his subversions more daring. Pee-Wee can even joke about masturbation — and he does — because quite honestly he has nothing to lose.*

Much of the material in the stage show is thoroughly familiar from the television series: we know by heart great portions of the script (particularly the plot, Pee-Wee’s wish to fly, and the courtship of Miss Yvonne and Cowboy Curtis), to say nothing of elements of décor and even individual amusements, such as “Mr. Bungle,” an unintentionally hilarious educational movie. That familiarity is a good and great thing. We want Pee-Wee to push our nostalgia buttons, of course — but, as I say, we also want to see him undaunted and unchanged. Meanwhile, the script becomes a sacred liturgy, attended by the ritualized responses of our laughter and screams.

Most welcome are the original Jambi (John Paragon) and Miss Yvonne (Stewart), whose characterizations were, respectively, the most subversive and the most ingenious of the old shows. Paragon (who also wrote a great deal of the old Pee-Wee show, and some of this one) makes Jambi the most overtly campy denizen of the Playhouse, operating on a level that’s virtually guaranteed to fly over children’s heads, even as he instigates purely childish naughtiness. (Jambi’s famous “Mekka lekka” incantation is an excuse to say “heinie.”)

Familiar faces, as seen on TV

Stewart’s Miss Yvonne is so funny, so sharply observed, so close to the sorts of children’s hostesses who were still prancing on TV when I was a boy, that I’ve been in her thrall from the start. If Miss Yvonne isn’t quite the most beautiful woman alive, she remains blissfully unaware of the fact, and yet she’s never mean about it. She’s brilliant, and if I had any reservation about the stage show, it’s that Stewart wasn’t given more to do.

John Moody’s Mailman Mike also has been part of the Playhouse troupe since its inception; he appears in several sequences, though not all of his material is top-notch. Ringers, all excellent, are brought in to play some other beloved characters. Lacking the befuddled gravity that the late William Marshall brought to the King of Cartoons on TV, Lance Roberts more than compensates with exuberance (and a Penny cartoon); as Curtis, Phil LaMarr manages to evoke his predecessor, Laurence Fishburne, without being studied about it. They’re great fun.

Big boots: Reubens and LaMarr

Jesse Garcia, who burned up the screen in Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer’s film Quinceañera, proves equally dynamic onstage as the dancing handyman Sergio. Drew Powell’s Bear offers hilariously inept pantomime, and we greeted the familiar puppet characters (Conky, Chairry, Pterri, Magic Screen, the rest, many redesigned by Basil Twist) exactly as if they were real people. Rightly so. Stage director Alex Timbers didn’t always keep pacing snappy enough, but he gave us everything else we needed, and then some.

Timbers’ real achievement is getting this vast playground into a theater in the first place, and ultimately it’s refreshing to see how easily The Pee-Wee Herman Show returns to its stage roots and plays to an audience composed principally (but not entirely) of grownups. From the moment Pee-Wee himself appeared, leading us in the Pledge of Allegiance, we were actors, too, enthusiastic participants in the spectacle.

Pee-Wee with Pterri (voiced by Paragon)

I gather from reading interviews that Paul Reubens had no idea of the vast reserves of love and admiration awaiting his comeback; he can have no doubt now. We waited a long time for this moment, and we whooped and cheered and screamed at the Secret Word for all we were worth. This was a revival meeting, a participatory, religious experience, and Pee-Wee rewarded us abundantly for our faith. When he declared himself once again “the luckiest boy” and offered to share his luck with us, it seemed the best New Year’s present anyone ever got.

I left the theater elated. If Pee-Wee can emerge unbowed from troubled times, so too can I.

My wish was granted. Long live Jambi.

*NOTE: There’s a similarly instructive example for artists on display in the movie Howl, which I recently saw, recounting the case of poet Allen Ginsberg. I intend to write about that, soon.


Suzanne Kirklin said...

R.I.P. Captain Carl! :(

William V. Madison said...

Amen to that!