N.C. Stage kicks off its 2009 Catalyst Series with a bit of a surprise. Whereas the series heretofore has primarily featured local theatre artists and companies, the current production features a writer / performer who has lived for many years in Colorado (though she has roots in the Asheville area, and has recently returned), and whose successful one-woman show, Crazy Bag, has done some touring west of the Mississippi. This places Murphy Funkhouser in a slightly different category than most Catalyst artists, and she certainly steps onto the stage with the confidence of someone who has earned her stripes on the festival circuit. (She even seems to have a following here — at least judging by the applause on opening night when she stepped out from the wings and introduced herself at the top of the show.) Clearly, she and director Christopher Willard (artistic director of Backstage Theatre in Breckenridge, Colo., where the show got its much-celebrated start) have aimed at a kind of professionalism one does not always see in the homegrown offerings. While I personally have a soft spot for the scruffy and weird, it’s also refreshing to see a show in which the technical aspects (lighting, sound, and set) conspire so well with what’s happening on stage.
What’s happening on stage in this show is essentially a standup comedy routine mapped onto a classic narrative of redemption. Crazy Bag is an unapologetically confessional show about Funkhouser’s own “fall from grace” after a strict Methodist upbringing, followed by a period of “sin” (or its familiar modern form, partying), homelessness, isolation, unwanted pregnancy, etc., leading to repentance and finally, redemption and return. In this respect, it’s sort of like the parable of the Prodigal Son, but with a female protagonist / narrator who has comic timing and a good deal of lip. (She also has a life-sized femme-fatale cut-out on hand that represents her “Closet Heathen,” complete with miniskirt, fishnet hose and Satanic leather pumps.)
And Funkhouser and Willard have found a handy way to tell this story, using the well-worn pop-psychology metaphor of “baggage.” This occasions endless puns and wordplay about “stowing,” “checking” and “searching.” Strewn about the stage are in fact numerous trunks and suitcases, which over the course of the performance get opened and their contents more or less spilled, as it were, into the light of day. Each bit of baggage has its story, of course, and many of these are told with a charming wryness. While the show is more narrative than dramatic, and more episodic than plotted, one’s sense of the redemption-story in the background keeps the various bits from resolving into standup comedy pure and simple.
And now a bit of reportage: The audience on opening night absolutely loved the show. There was laughter, there were tears, there was a standing ovation. It was clear that the material itself and its presentation resonated very strongly with everyone.
Well, almost everyone. It would be easy to argue that my own background (rather casually Episcopal) and gender (male, at least so far) make me de facto not the intended audience. But surely one must not have lived through it oneself in order to feel moved by drama –– or novels or anything else. No: The problem for me was that Funkhouser herself did most of my emoting for me. Or at least, she seemed to be trying really hard to. While on the one hand I have to acknowledge the guts of anyone who would put their life story out in front of the public so earnestly, on the other hand, being made witness to another person’s catharsis does not automatically cause me to have one as well. In fact, it generally causes me not to have one. But here I have to admit: I looked around me in the theatre during the second act, when Funkhouser drops the comedy almost entirely as she demonstrates the joys of motherhood and the sorrows of losing a parent, and I saw actual tears on the faces of my fellow human beings — men included. It was one of those strange moments in life when you have the sense that maybe you’re on another planet all of the sudden. And frankly, I would still feel like a cold-hearted freak were it not for the fact that my friend beside me (who was visiting from Germany, where she performs with the Berlin Ensemble) was as dry-cheeked and uncomfortable as I was. If not more so.
In short, I would have appreciated some restraint. I’m more moved by the spectacle of fortitude than of abandon, of someone resisting, for as long as possible, the urge to give in to wailing when confronted with a situation that seems to demand it. To me, that is courage — in art and life.
As a theatre artist myself, and as someone who’s even had the audacity to attempt a one-person show, I’ll admit the response of the audience to Crazy Bag raised certain questions for me, questions about how performer relates to audience and about how facts can and should be transmuted in a work of art. Instead of attempting to answer these questions here, though, I’ll say this: Humanity and its arts are nothing if not diverse, and it’s certainly a good thing that different kinds of work can find an audience and a warm reception here in Asheville. The evidence is overwhelming: Crazy Bag is a show that many people will love, and that everyone will find memorable, if perhaps for different reasons.
Crazy Bag, written and performed by: Murphy Funkhouser. Directed by Christopher Willard. Technical Design/Operation by Marlene Mechanic. Thursdays through Saturdays, through Aug. 15. 7:30 p.m. at N.C. Stage, 15 Stage Lane, in downtown Asheville (behind the Rankin parking deck, across from Zambra). Tickets $12 on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays $15. 239-0263 or www.ncstage.org.