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Theatre in Review: My Name is Gideon: I'm Probably Going to Die, Eventually (Rattlestick Theatre)

Photo: Maria Baranova

Reviewers covering My Name is Gideon: I'm Probably Going to Die, Eventually are given an envelope to open at the conclusion of the performance. It contains a note asking us not to give away any of the show's surprises. Normally, this would irritate me. This time, however, I'm fine. The show is indescribable, anyway.

As the program points out, "Gideon Irving has performed musical shows in 504 living rooms in every country with the exception of 190 countries." It goes on to say, "He is currently developing a home-show for deep international touring, using no words; a kids' home-show with [his sometime creative partner] Hubcap Sloan; and another solo home-show for an eighteen-month tour across America on horseback (true!)." Actually, I believe him. If it's kooky, you can bet it has his fingerprints on it. Anyway, I include this quote as a kind of consumer advisory. If you find this sort of thing amusing, you should head to Rattlestick Playwrights Theater at the earliest opportunity. If you find it a little precious -- and you aren't amused by the fact that the program contains his social security number -- well, it's the holiday season and there are so many more entertainments in town.

A guy of average build, with stubble on his head and chin and a pair of eyebrows that frame his face like a pair of crescent moons, Gideon Irving is soft-spoken, polite (courtly, even), and clinically deranged; the show is his personal collection of curiosities -- musical, personal, and philosophical. Irving is, to say the least, an entertainer of many parts. Before the show, he plays a tune on the saw. He opens the show by talking about his 1,000-person CD design project, the details of which are too convoluted to repeat here -- but you, too, can participate! He describes his career, which has been spent playing in other people's living rooms. He sings a number about Hubcap's desire to move West, which begins, "San Francisco oh you swollen beauty sucker took my man" -- but, really, they're just good friends. His favorite song, "Sea Lion Cow," consists of lyrics made up by the five-year-old daughter of an acquaintance. ("Oh up into the sea and a memory/I see the sky it's bloomin/I show you that I have my fears and/All of them go crashing by...") However, they don't sound that different from Irving's own lyrics, which often go like this: "I was fed from the body was given the earth/And the sky was implied/Was given song for my sleep woken with hot breakfast/was given song for my sleep woken with hot breakfast." Given the oracular nature of his delivery, the words often sound better than they are.

And yet My Name is Gideon has a definite shaggy-dog charm. His lengthy account of his mother's first love -- and their incredible what-are-the-chances reunion many years later -- is beguiling, whether or not it is embroidered. He layers samples from various instruments onto another story, creating a distinctly eerie meld of words and music. Anyone who can make an entire audience deliver bird calls in total darkness -- don't ask -- must be doing something right. He also hands out flowers to the viewers -- only to ask that they be tossed back during the curtain call.

Whether he is playing any number of instruments you've never heard of, wailing a song called "Don't Text Me," or handing out the absolutely delicious chocolate chip cookies that he bakes for each audience, Gideon Irving is an original. And then there's the competition to take him home for the night, which, at the performance I attended, had at least five takers. (The winner was from Brooklyn -- for Irving, a relief, since there was the recent trip to the depths of New Jersey.) At moments like these, and given his ability to earn laughs from his deadpan delivery, Irving comes across like some kind of apex of hipster humor. But I suspect his influences are many; for example, it's been a long time since I've seen anything so reminiscent of Ernie Kovacs as the little sketch about Irving's brother, the abalone. You read that right, and I'm not going to explain it here. The Kovacs spirit is further evoked in all the passages I'm not supposed to mention, but which involved some truly astounding visual gags.

Anyway, Gideon Irving is sometimes funny, sometimes sad, and sometimes plain mystifying, but he has the power to hold an audience in his hand. Besides the previously mentioned take-Gideon-home game, at the performance I attended he persuaded a man in the front row to wear the strangest plastic getup you've ever seen, basically for no reason at all.

My Name is Gideon has no credited director, but Ewen Wright is listed as creative consultant, so I assume he had something to do with this seemingly semi-improvised, yet remarkably precise, excursion into whimsy. The set, by Selovsky Studios, is apparently a recreation of Irving's apartment -- including his beloved collection of National Geographics; I will only add that it is far more complicated than it first appears. (The seating area includes a recliner for one lucky audience member.) Stephen Terry apparently manages to light the show without a single theatrical instrument, relying instead on enormous numbers of twinkle lights and onstage practicals; the grimy Rattlestick auditorium has never looked so festive. It's hard to believe that the costumes don't come directly out of Irving's closet, but Alice Tavener is mentioned, so I guess she found that velvet patterned blazer and the apron emblazoned with "Go Bananas!" Dan Gerhard provided the simple, transparent sound design.

Reading this, I'm not sure I've conveyed the singular nature of this show. Let me add that it is the damnedest thing I've seen all season, a nutball special that, against the odds, proves to be surprisingly amusing right up to its time-tripping finale. If you see it now, you can be a founding member of his cult audience. -- David Barbour

(22 November 2016)

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