Stand-up comedy is the art of wearing your fears on your sleeve. Even those of the assault-and-battery school have a glaring vulnerable side—for all their jokey aggression, a wrong look can decimate them. English funnyman Bill Bailey, on the other hand, makes wry sport out of his own even-keeled dorkiness. An Eddie Izzard-style ironist minus the female drag, Bailey calls himself a “relaxed empiricist,” commentating on the world in such a way as to throw into relief the absurdity of the everyday. His mild manner (not to mention his admitted resemblance to the rocker Meat Loaf) might suggest a serious bong habit. Yet his articulate low-key wit couldn’t be less spacey. This bangers-and-mash bloke from Bath not only has a hit BBC sitcom, he has an uncanny knack for pointing out the unacknowledged obvious.
Bailey clearly feels no pressure to pour on the yuks in his new show, Bewilderness (part of BBC America’s “Deadfunny” series). He wanders onstage in a black short-sleeve button-down and baggy jeans as though he were merely out for a few pints. “Good evening, I’m Bill Bailey and I’m English,” he begins, repeating the words intermittently, as though his act were one long warm-up. Casually acknowledging the synthesizer, electric guitar, and other small instruments strewn around him, he hints uncertainly that they might come into play at some point in the evening. But Bailey would rather first make small talk about the way the post-imperial English phrase book needs to be updated (“Sir, you are a disgrace” apparently won’t cut it anymore in Indonesia) or how the Hundred Years War would have been a disaster for TV news.
His foray into live music starts slowly, with a comparison of European sirens, where bland English practicality is pitted against French lyrical (a/k/a wine-besotted) excess. After an eclectic survey of classical composers (idiosyncratically interpreted to shed light on their private temperaments), Bailey incongruously roars, “Are you ready to rock?” Tousling his long mane of hair, he tries to live up to that Meat Loaf appearance, though his Beethoven and buttered-crumpet jokes keep getting in the way. A techno number sending up President’s Bush’s rhetorical clumsiness mixes in taped excerpts from an axis-of-evil speech. An equal opportunity humorist, he can’t help drolly parsing Clinton’s claim that oral sex is technically an accident.
Bailey’s underwhelming delivery is one of his chief assets: Instead of cornering us into laughs, he invites our chuckling complicity. Taking questions from the audience throughout his routine, he doesn’t mind a longish detour. One awkward exchange with an impassioned middle-aged man on the subject of legalizing drugs led Bailey to the realization that “smoking marijuana and cogent political argument simply don’t mix.” In keeping with the evening’s casual nature, there’s hardly what you’d call a climactic finish. Even after the curtain call, Bailey continued to engage in conversation, preferring things to “peter out” rather than end abruptly. In truth, a smaller version of the party seemed likely to move to some neighborhood watering hole.
Informality isn’t always an aesthetic virtue. Theodora Skipitares’s The Rise and Fall of Timur the Lame, for example, has a desultory feeling that doesn’t exactly serve her subject matter. This has nothing to do with the way the audience must lug their benches around the La MaMa Annex; it’s merely that the production’s form seems patched together under the rubric “Introduction to Asian Theater Techniques.”
After a prologue history of Brahman theater, we are treated to a shadow-puppet show enacting scenes from Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great. Though the Elizabethan play boldly revels in the overreaching excesses of the maniacal Asian conqueror (not for nothing does T.S. Eliot comment on Marlowe’s “savage comic humour”), Skipitares’s distillation focuses less on the heroic ambition to surpass the limits of mortal humanity and more on the unbridled villainy—a Manichaean view that, while morally correct, drains the story of its theatrical color. But since we are asked in the beginning to reflect on the difference between good and evil actions, we duly take note of Tamburlaine’s imminent demise and turn our attention to the next installment, which features Sanjeeva Suvarna’s ritual dance in full Krishna regalia. Descending on wooden platform steps, the barefoot dancer from India moves to a rhythmically catchy David First song with lyrics based on a portion of the Bhagavad Gita. Though a doll-puppet version of Tamburlaine gazes mutely at the whirling young man, the connection between the two characters is left for the audience to surmise.
Also left uncertain is the epilogue’s projected map of a country that could very well be Afghanistan, with the silent implication of America as tragic warlord in a sacred land. But the production’s elliptical nature makes this pure speculation. Clearly rendered, however, are the beautifully painted cubist shadow puppets, the harmonious voice of Lisa Karrer, and the hypnotic athleticism of Suvarna’s body. Though not allowed to converse together, the component parts of Skipitares’s four-part seminar have moments of solitary eloquence.