Trav S.D., who has written, directed and produced The American Vaudeville Theatre 15th Anniversary ExTRAVaganza at FringeNYC has been staging vaudeville shows for over 15 years, bringing back the spirit of the Ellis Island era of downtown NYC (some of which can still be seen on Coney Island today). He has had great success over the years in staging these performances, writing and lecturing about vaudeville in order to ensure the form of vaudeville does not die, which is no small task.
This show is made up of a series of revolving vaudeville acts that are showcased between entr’actes written and directed by Trav S.D. There are the kind of bad jokes and MC behavior from him and his troupe that one would expect from vaudeville, my favorite being a sketch wherein some businessmen who rhyme ferret out the intruder in their midst by the fact he does not rhyme and beat him up for the transgression. There was a very funny, and weirdly affecting lip-synching act by a man, who also lip-synched the accompanying voices with sock puppets. The featured acts on the night I attended included a young woman, Poor Baby Bree, singing traditional Lower East Side songs, The Leroy Sisters doing a long melodrama sketch and A.C. Prouser (I think – if the program is accurate – though I cannot tell if he, too, is the ‘juggling genius’) juggling balls, plungers and toilet seats. There was a mentalist sketch by Rory Raven and some dancing with red flags by the Five Sizzling Fajitas.
There is something deeply charming about this whole project, and it is quite interesting to think about how this type of work played at the time when it was wildly popular at the turn of the 19th to 20th century. I do wonder what its relevance is today and if there is not some nostalgia involved for a time gone by, but there is a living museum quality that clearly people enjoy. The audience was quite engaged and lively throughout the many acts. And there was a lot of skill involved in many of the acts that was refreshing to witness.
Back to my obsession with dissecting irony, though, I did wonder about the song at the end ‘New York’s a Patriotic Town.’ It was funny, yes, and of course it was ironic. The patriotism implied was not so much for the U.S. as for NYC itself, and anyone who’s lived here, as I have, can relate to that feeling. I do wonder aloud, again, though – why do we have to say things in this way? Why must there always be this wink and a nod, and it’s OK because we’re all smarter than that kind of attitude? I am afraid I must seem quite pedantic by now, banging on and on about this, but it keeps bothering me, probably because in the past I’ve been a purveyor of it myself, or perhaps because I don’t like it as a self-protective stance and feel somewhat put out by the fact that others do protect themselves this way. Either way, I do think it’s worth looking at why this is the main way we communicate and if there is another way. Also (and this comes from having lived outside of the U.S. for eight years), the wink and a nod patriotism, which on the one hand mocks itself but on the other hand asserts itself seems quite blatant. There is a way in which satire can confirm rather than undermine its so-called target, and I think this is an example of that. If this is the intention, than so be it, but if not, then perhaps it can be re-thought.
However, the more important message here is that what is charming about American Vaudeville Theatre is that it seems to come from love of this form, and for that I commend it. It is not easy to stick it out, keep a form alive that is on the edge of extinction and continue to bring in new acts that find new ways of keeping an old form fresh. I was also impressed that there was an audience for this that seemed engaged in particular with certain acts. Some of these audience members felt free enough to talk at the stage, and that engagement seemed quite appropriate to the form.
One of my favorite moments of the evening was when one of The Leroy Sisters was asking the audience for help finding the criminal and she reminded us we were all here and it wasn’t a film. There does seem to be an interesting challenge in this time of the virtual to bring about engaged audience response.
I suppose this would be the most interesting challenge for the next 15 years of AVT (and I hope there are at least 15 more years) – get the audience as involved as they used to be in the old music halls. Somehow create that raucous atmosphere and voluble comments that characterized the old-time vaudeville. It seems like these days perhaps stand-up comedians and their audiences are the closest equivalent we have, but there seems to be room here for that, too.
For schedule and tickets for remaining shows, click here: AVT