Media Relations: media commentary and criticism

Friday, March 31, 2000


OK. Let me make one thing clear right at the beginning, because I have a horrible feeling that it won't seem like it later on.

I really really liked the Eddie Izzard show, "Circle", which I saw on Thursday, March 23, at Chicago's Royal George Theater. It was a fun way to spend an evening, and I'm definitely glad that I went.

That said ... it was definitely an odd evening at the theater.

I did go in with two questions to start with. First, why was the new show called "Circle"--easy enough question to answer, you'd think. The second, why was the logo for the show on the poster a large black silk rose. That last was just an idle question, of course. I was also expecting something along the lines of what we saw in the HBO special, a show about 75 minutes long in one act. This was not, as it turned out, what I got, which was both good and bad.

The oddness began with the theater itself. The Royal George wasn't quite what I was expecting. I thought it would be a more typical theater, somewhat largish with relatively gently graded slope upward for its seating--that is, each row just a bit higher and offset from the row ahead, and so on. However, the Royal George has full stadium seating, with each seat up on a separate step from the one below. People have absolutely no problem seeing over the heads of the people in front of them, unless they're absolutely miniscule. And each tier was wide enough to provide, like, actual leg room. People could pass each other without causing too many difficulties.

Totally cool.

Meanwhile, down in Row 3, two little old ladies (OK, OK, maybe later middle age--mid to upper 50s--but "little old ladies" sounds so much BETTER!) pushed the term "casual dress" to its limits. Both were wearing black t-shirts with large white lettering. The first read simply "IZZARD RULES!" on the front. The second read "Let them eat cake" on the front and "Cake or Death!" on the back--both lines from "Dress to Kill", Izzard's recent New York and HBO show.

I also noticed that the ventilation was set to "hurricane". I mean, clothes were blowing in the breeze, the woman next to me had hair that was standing straight up from the force of it. It turned out that this was because in order to hear Izzard, who, even with a microphone, is relatively soft-spoken, ventilation is turned completely off during the show itself, and left off until intermission.

And then the music came up (loud, thumpy stuff) and then he was ON! Boy, was he on! Actually, after a few minutes, I was wondering just WHAT he was on.

The energy in the show (I hate that new-agey phrase, but I can't think of anything better) was very very ... odd. The first 5-10 minutes of his act is basically one long run-on sentence done at about 10 million words per minute; after a few minutes, all I could think was "Someone get this guy a Valium!" Between his accent (which in and of itself isn't all that difficult to understand), the speed of his delivery and the fact that he was almost literally bouncing off the walls--he wanders all over the stage, not always with any sort of point, so it's a good thing that he wears a headset microphone--it really does take nearly ten minutes before you can consistently understand most of what he's saying.

The other thing that threw people, almost immediately, was his dress. Or rather, the fact that he wasn't wearing one. Most of the people in the Chicago audience would know him only from his HBO "Dress to Kill" show, in which he wore a lovely patterned silk cheong-sam Oriental twin set, clearly identifiable as women's clothing. In this show, he wore what can only be thought of as dressed-down glam: black western style shirt and black pants with colorful (sometimes sequined) piping on most of the seams and edges. Also, the highest heels on a pair of not-quite-platform boots that I have EVER seen in my life, probably five-to-seven-inch platform heels; I couldn't figure out what kept him from falling forward off the stage whenever he walked. In any event, glam or not, he was quite identifiably dressed as a man; for an audience expecting an "executive transvestite", this was mildly confusing at first. (And apparently a change for the American tour--it may well have been a change in Chicago, since, according to another review--referenced later--he talked about this a bit in the preview show. According to earlier audiences from Britain and these pictures, he started out with a lovely leather skirt set (which was apparently a royal pain, which may, to some extent, explain part of the costume change).

He started out by talking about the differences between the American cities he'd visited so far, a sort of "get acquainted" segment--the sort of thing that allowed people to get used to the way he talked without really needing to absorb too much; I think he's had just a bit of experience with American audiences not being able to understand him at first. Once people seemed to be comfortable, he launched into an all-out assault on British sport and the Guinness Book of Records, and the idiotic things that people can do to get into it. (He went into great detail describing what it must have been like for the man who got the record for the most drinking straws in his mouth by dislocating his jaw! ick! and the man who had a world record for bees in the mouth--apparently, it seems, the mouth is a really favored place for sticking unusual things.) He talked about how the British invent all sorts of sports just so that someone else can be good at them (apparently the invention of downhill skiing involved a British man, a couple of cross-country skis rather abruptly repurposed, a sled and a bear). Then, somehow, cows wandered into the monologue ... and then he got lost.

He literally stood up on stage, stared out over the audience, and then said, "I don't believe it, I've fucking lost my place. What was I talking about again?" He looked offstage, but whatever he was looking for, it wasn't there. After a few rather startled moments in which the people in the front row realized he really did mean for them to prompt him, they threw his cows lines back again, and he was off and running.

During the first half of the show, he completely lost track of what he was saying at least three or four times, and it was so severe that the only conclusions that could be drawn were that he was either on drugs or that he was totally exhausted (not that these are completely exclusive, of course). And either way, it was terribly shocking; if this had been the first day or two of a show, going dry like that could have been understandable, but not only was this the second week of the Chicago run, but he'd had the show going for a couple of weeks in Toronto before that, and a few weeks in Britain before THAT. Granted that he clearly doesn't work off a script--he's a bit too freeform for that to even be a possibility for this show--nonetheless, after at least 20-30 performances, he should have his themes and sequences locked into his brain. One or two missed lines might be understandable; more than that seems to say that something isn't quite right.

Nonetheless, he did have several very funny bits scattered throughout the act. For example, he talked about the Queen Mother, and how she's going to be 100 this year, and how when you reach that age, after you've done the Official Wave and been to Official Waving School for umpteen years, you should be allowed to make any hand gesture you want, so taht if she felt like it, the queen Mum could give people the finger instead of the Wave (the physical comedy attached to this was just perfect). And then there was a bit about God Spend The Queen, that historical nonfunctioning anachronism. (His words, thanks.) And then he talked about the destruction of modern British society by "Lady Thatcher, That Cunt ... but thank God she died." (moment of thoroughly confused silence from the audience.) "Well, think about it. She's got that chicken neck, and if you cut off a chicken's head, it can wander around for years afterward. Clearly, someone cut off her head, put it back on, and forgot to tell her." And so on about modern British society until intermission.

It was a this point that I realized that something odd was going on, not related to Izzard at all. I realized that I was suddenly unusually itchy. And that the person seated in front of me was a practitioner of the skank 'ho school of perfumerie. (To wit: spritz lightly on one wrist, and rub the other lightly against it. Place a drop on the pulse point at your throat. Spritz a cloud into the air and walk through it as it falls. Decide that this ia all too damned discreet. Dump the bottle over your head. Find another bottle and put it on the parts of you that the first bottle missed. Go out and remain oblivious to the fact that everyone near you is coming down with unusually severe cases of asthma, even when they never had asthma before.)
     Basically, I'd just discovered the one and only perfume that I've ever found that I'm allergic to. What wonderful timing! But yr intrepid interviewer did not let such extraneous things interfere with the enjoyment of the show! (Actually, I was saved by intermission, when she went out, and the air conditioning went back up to "hurricane". And, thankfully, it didn't turn off completely after intermission.)

Perfumerie aside, the thing that really surprised me was that the first act of "Circle" ran as long as ALL of HBO's "Dress to Kill". (There was, it turned out, a reason for that, which I'll get into a bit later.)

The second act was much more entertaining, and moved much better than the first act. In the second act, he introduced his main idea, that of charting the development of the world from pre-prehistoric times through the Crucifixion and thence to modern times. At first, I really did wonder why he didn't reverse the sequence of his acts, if that was his theme. After all, it would make much more sense to start with prehistory, and then move into modern times with the Olympics and British sport and society and cows and whatnot. And I still didn't get the "circle" part.

The second act was just much more tightly put together than the first, and his extended sequence about God and his sons Calvin and Jesus were just hysterical. (Calvin, you see, came first. He tried to be the savior for the dinosaurs, but that really didn't work quite the way they intended, and then God got all absent minded and threw a meteor at them, so that was the end of that. Then Calvin tried to save the Neanderthals, and that didn't work out well either, so he retired in a huff to paint planets. To paint them, you understand, not pictures of them. Then this Jesus fellow entered the picture, and then he got caught having to explain this whole crucifixion thing, which didn't really work out the way they planned, either. Apparently the whole last supper deal was just a bit too cannibalistic for God's taste, as he was trying to get mankind away from this whole "let's eat each other" concept.)

This somehow led to Darth Vader. Well, what really happened was that Aristotle led to the Crucifixion led to Europe, which led to the Black Plague, which led to the Renaissance which led to the Protestant reformation, which led to Henry VIII--who didn't really have anything to do with the Protestant Reformation, aside from wanting to do in a few wives--which led to the founding of America, which led to Darth Vader. Izzard then went into an extended suite on the difficulties Darth would have getting food in his own death star. (Including an interesting little discursion into the difficulties that Europeans have with the portion sizes of American food and the fact that we seem to like grotesque quantities of ice in everything liquid.)

Abrupt end of show.

then he came out to do a brief encore, opened with his trademark silencing the audience wave. And, I must admit, I remember not a word of the encore, although I do remember being rather startled that it was lifted directly from some part of "Dress to Kill".

Still and all, but for a few flaws, it was a basically enjoyable evening.

Now for a bit of a post-mortem dissection.

The next day, while out at a restaurant, I read a review of the show in the Chicago Reader, and a couple of things became a little more clear. First, he probably really is exhausted. He did a one-man show called "Lenny" (about Lenny Bruce) in Britain, which was apparently a complete tour-de-force; that show will be coming to Broadway next year. Quite literally the day after "Lenny" closed, he started the "Circle" tour. He hasn't taken more than a week off since then, if that; much of his time off has been taken up with travel and arrangements and whatnot. He's quite literally exhausted, and I must admit, I don't understand why he's putting himself through a schedule quite this insane.

Another thing I'd wondered about was the rather surprising length of this show and why the HBO show had been so much shorter. It turns out that HBO cut a full hour from the stage version of "Dress to Kill". The hour that, coincidentally, forms the last hour of "Circle"; the modern section of his travels through history section is lifted completely from "Dress to Kill", including the Darth Vader in the Cafeteria bit.

To some extent, why he did that can be understood. Most people in the US and elsewhere simply haven't seen all of his show, and given that he was already performing in "Lenny", finding the time to make "Circle" as good or extensive as "Dress to Kill" must have been almost impossible. He also had to know that if he appeared anywhere with a show that consisted only of the first act of "Circle", he'd not only get shredded by critics everywhere,but that he'd disappoint people so badly that advance word would have killed the tour. Given those circumstances, sticking the end of one show onto the end of the other must have seemed a no-brainer.

He's taking two weeks off between Chicago and Philadelphia, and I hope he uses that time to sculpt "Circle" into something closer to what he must want it to be. That, and I hope it's enough time for him to recharge his batteries. He's going from Philadelphia to New York on one day's rest, which sounds like a drastic mistake to me, given what I saw here.

If you saw "Dress to Kill" on stage, I suspect you'll want to skip this one. After all, who needs to pay that much money to see it again? For anyone else, however, I do want to say once again that it really was an very enjoyable evening in the theatre. When he was on, he was very very on, and the bits from "Dress to Kill" were very good. Since I hadn't seen them before, I didn't feel at all cheated. If you've seen "Dress to Kill" on HBO, you'll enjoy this, although it's not overall as interesting. It's definitely worth the money, I thought.
picture of Eddie Izzard and link to his official web site

Click the above pic to go to Eddie Izzard's official web site.

Ravening Fan Sites:
Cake or Death! (all things considered, the opening picture on that site is about as startling as it gets)

Pandas Currantbun (Hey, I don't name 'em, I just finds 'em)

Eddie Izzard=Buddyhead (Um. Yes. Well. Just make sure that you have Javascript enabled and graphics turned on or you ain't goin' nowhere with this more or less one page site.)

Posted by iain at 11:43 PM in category