It was just kind of perfect. We had a free night, we had a meeting nearby and we had missed Bathtub Jen and her Henchmen’s previous attempt at full length show. So we popped in to Under St. Mark’s last week to see their newest incarnation in the MiniFridge 2014 — and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.
It doesn’t happen often, but every now and then, I’ll watch a contemporary act and get a little flash of revelation about what the experience of the original vaudeville must have been like. Talent and approach is one factor, but in this instance I’m thinking about time. I’m thinking about the incubation of acts in vaudeville’s scientific petrie dish. One example is Todd Robbins. He is a rare one because I have gotten to watch him for 20 years, gotten to see the polish grow shinier and shinier, gotten to see the air of authority grow as he matures, gotten to see him bounce his material over all sorts of audiences in different cultural arenas.
I have watched Bathtub Jen and Her Henchmen for three years, usually in short sets of about ten minutes. What was cool and instructive about the new show was how they assembled many short segments I had seen them perform many times, then stitch them together with new bits I have not seen (scenes, monologues, songs), and fill in the seams with putty and make a new work with its own integrity. It was artistry and craftsmanship of a peculiarly vaudevillian type. There is so much I love about this trio. One is the sort of loose chemistry among them, which reminds me a LOT of so many vaudeville teams. Any of the three of them could split off and take their thing elsewhere, do a solo thing, join another group. (And they do often perform in other contexts). So they are three individuals interacting as a unit, like a triple star system
Jen Harder is the fast talking, mutilated steam-punk gun moll/ strumpet (a strumpet who plays a trumpet). Charley Layton is her shirtless Russian husband Ivan, a cross between Iggy Pop and a wet hen, always negative and carping. He plays accordion and ukulele with a punkish verve. Glen Heroy is an Irish cop from central casting with a brogue, a tenor singing voice and an impressive facility on the spoons. The three compose a comedy menage a troi not unlike Popeye/ Olive Oyl/ Bluto, or Krazy Kat/ Ignatz/ Offissa Pup.
Stuff I noticed/ appreciated/ loved about this show:
* Jen is letting herself get MIGHTY goofy now and it’s a good thing. There were several facial moments that called to mind no less than Jerry Lewis, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a woman go there.
* There is a REALLY nice, EXPERT balance between well crafted material (some REALLY smart writing, BTW), well rehearsed musical turns, and physical comedy….with improv, loose, living in the moment which keeps the thing alive and keeps us all on our toes. Some of the ad libs were so self assured that I wondered if they were planned and rehearsed. This kind of thing is very much to my taste.
* Glen seems to have gotten much better and flashier on the spoons and has taken on a lot of songs, a good thing. I don’t know anybody in the performance scene who’s doing an Irish tenor act. It’s very vaudeville and he’s cornered the market.
* Love their crowd pleasing repertoire: “When I’m 64”, the Star Wars cantina instrumental, “We’ll Meet Again”, the old Sophie Tucker weepie “After You’ve Gone”, “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue”, “All of Me” (always hilarious when Jen does it because she is missing so many limbs and organs), and hilariously rejiggered modern tunes like “Eye of the Tiger” and Blondie’s “Heart of Glass”.
In short, I think this team has achieved that elusive thing: the bookable. My takeway from the show: this show could and should play festivals, cabarets, and night clubs, and they should tour the hell out if it, both at home and abroad. Could it use more polish? Sure. A local run first, then. A local run and then a tour. That’s Dr. Travvy’s prescription — and I want my cut!