Review of Crazy Bag at N.C. Stage

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.

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15 thoughts on “Review of Crazy Bag at N.C. Stage

  1. BG Cauble

    Funny. This very review could have been written about Crutchfield’s own “The Songs of Robert.” I wondered who would review Crutchfield’s show. Looks like Crutchfield somewhat did so himself. No conflict of interest? Get real.

  2. Lucia Del Vecchio

    Considering Crutchfield’s show only ran one night last week as a fundraiser for his NYC Fringe Fest trip, there wasn’t really a push to review it. There are a great deal of shows in WNC every month with multiple week runs, and we reviewers do our best to review those shows in a timely manner. Cauble, your comments, seemingly largely on Crutchfield’s reviews, have a stinging mean spiritedness that aren’t really contributing to the artistic discussions possible on this blog. It’s been said time and again that having an informed, educated, experienced theatre reviewer in this town who is not involved in local theatre is nearly impossible, not to mention sort of irrelevant. I have no idea why you have so little faith in our ability to divorce our own personal and professional ties when reviewing theatre, but I for one make my best effort to review all the shows I see without any credence given to personal experiences with anyone involved in the show I’m reviewing. I have been lucky so far that the shows I have reviewed have not had any theatre people in them yet I have directly worked with, but I do know many of them personally and have relationships with them, and these facts had absolutely no bearing on my reviews. You seem to want to harp on the point over and over again that Crutchfield is a connected theatre practitioner in town who is wholly unable to not take into account his own theatrical reputation and efforts when reviewing. Crutchfield also has a longstanding relationship with NC Stage, the host of the Catalyst Series, of which “Crazy Bag” is a part of. And why would Crutchfield want to write a critical review of a show indirectly produced by a company he has worked with, in a series he is a part of? That makes no sense at all, and undercuts your argument.

  3. BGCauble

    I wasn’t particular picking on Crutchfield. I feel the same way about all of you (except for the one staff writer who’s just doing her job). Of course, it’s not really your fault. If the Mountain Xpress editors really knew what it meant to be objective, they wouldn’t have asked local, active theatre participants to do the “reviews” in the first place.

    However, you have validated my opinion: “And why would Crutchfield want to write a critical review of a show indirectly produced by a company he has worked with, in a series he is a part of?”

    My point exactly. None of you can. None of you should.

  4. Jamie

    I think what Lucia meant was that, by your logic, Crutchfield would be incapable of being critical because he is in any way sort of kind of tangentially connected to the project. But he did write a critical review. Unless you think anything short of complete lambasting isn’t critical. Incidentally, I reviewed Crutchfield’s “Songs of Robert” in its first incarnation on the Asheville Performing Arts Review blog, before this blog existed. I am not going to try to dissuade you from the notion that we are all too emotionally weak to write fairly impartial reviews by token of the fact that any of may ever work in theatre in this town in any capacity. You are always welcome to rebut reviews with your own thoughts on a given show.

  5. Lucia Del Vecchio

    Your point exactly? Exactly what is your point, really? I’m not sure what model of criticism you are working from, but there are very few people in very few places in this country with an educated, experienced knowledge of theatre who are not in some way practicing theatre. Show me someone with a graduate school level education in theatre in Asheville who is not actively involved in any theatre in town and, this is the pivotal part, WANTS to write reviews, and I’m sure we would happily welcome them to the group we currently have. The only argument you have is that Crutchfield can’t possibly be objective because he is tangentially involved. You got anything else, any actual specific points about what he actually says in the content of his review?

  6. ryan madden

    I don’t think the gradschool bomb was necessary or applicable in all examples. I agree that BGCauble’s point is irrelevant, but let’s not try to put up any pedestals where they seem a bit superfluous. My main impression of graduate school level education on local theatre blogs is the same I get from a layman’s perspective of Spike Lee at a Knicks game.

    My internet Asperger aside, I do love all of you reviewers that I know. Just remember while justifying your validity on one front to not go storming off into Russia.

  7. Lucia Del Vecchio

    Ack, Ryan, I didn’t mean it that way at all- I was thinking of NYC critics who make a living at it, they tend to have PhDs in Theatre History and Criticism and have lots of knowledge of the performative tendencies of aboriginal tribes and make comparisons. Out of those of us writing here, I think I’m the only one with a theatre grad degree, so that makes me look like a bit of a chump, but the rest of us have varying degrees in varying disciplines, and I certainly wouldn’t volunteer myself up as more knowledgeable in theatre criticism than anyone else simply because I have a graduate degree. I was just trying to figure out exactly what would make the commenter happy, the average person who has no practical experience or knowledge of theatre writing reviews, or the overeducated theatre critic who studied criticism for eight years in a classroom, because he certainly doesn’t like the lot of us, that’s for sure.

  8. tigerlily

    Arguing about objectivity is pointless. In fact, desiring objectivity is pointless. This is art, not science; an experience, not the solution to a problem. And Crutchfield doesn’t pretend to be objective: he readily shares his own feelings and admits that his reactions are different from others in the audience. I find this both truthful and reasonable. Plus his writing style is good. And that’s more important, ultimately, than anything else. If I’m going to spend time reading a review, I want to enjoy the writing for its style and intelligence. Otherwise, I’m just playing a game of comparing my opinion with a critic’s in order to decide whether I’m validated (if I agree) or right (if I don’t). That’s boring. Besides, I can form my own opinions about the theatre I see. But that’s not why I go.

  9. AshevilleObserver

    Enjoyable exchange among the commentators. Does Ms. Del Vecchio’s criterion (a graduate school level education in theatre) for Mountain Express theatre reviewers apply to the current group? Do Mr. Samuels, Mr. Crutchfield and Ms. Schell have graduate degrees in theatre? Ben Brantley, the chief theatre critic of The New York Times, “only” has a B.A. degree in English from Swarthmore College. Frank Rich, the former chief Times theatre critic, “only” has a B.A. degree in American History and Literature from Harvard.

    Interesting comment: “Show me someone with a graduate school level education in theatre in Asheville who is not actively involved in any theatre in town and, this is the pivotal part, WANTS to write reviews . . ” Given the number of highly educated retired (or older still working) people in Asheville, it seems likely there are some with theatre backgrounds not involved in local theatre. Do you need to cast your net farhter? Persuading them to write reviews . . . that may be a challenge.

  10. Lucia Del Vecchio

    To clarify, my assumption about the education levels of professional critics was largely based on the reading I had to do in graduate school of academics such as Richard Schechner and the PhD graduate students and how they tended to analyze theatre from an academic perspective. I found their views to be dry and overly intellectual, and I seriously doubt that type of writing would do the average audience member any favors. Thanks, AshevilleObserver, for pointing out the education levels of actual city critics, which apparently are not as academically based as I thought. I stand corrected. And let me clarify one more time that the education levels of my cohorts here are not in questions, as they have ample experience and knowledge to do what they do. I just had, and still have, no idea what BG Cauble wants for proper reviewer credentials.

  11. tigerlily

    If I had to choose academic qualifications for reviewers, I’m not sure I would choose MFAs in theatre, necessarily. Why, for example would a trained actor, designer or director by a good judge? Yes, they know how to make theatre, but can they write? Do they make connections beyond the profession? Of course, everyone’s different, and 10-30 years of life experience may trump any degree… but give me a generally educated person who writes well and understands culture in general over a specialist who just might have an unconscious agenda to pursue, and who thinks — because he or she is a “specialist” that he or she can be “objective.” Maybe the Times has it right (as far as is possible): broad liberal arts plus good writing plus a non-professional love of theatre…

  12. visiting artist

    I notice a thread like a wild hair that does not want to go way in the discussion forums that follow these Mountain Express theatre reviews – that of “objectivity”. Objectivity is a tricky beast in the arts, where players learn out of necessity to develop taste, privilege certain forms, and align themselves with groups – especially in a small local arts scene.

    Although I come to this discussion from the field of visual – not theatre – arts, I see a parallel. There is a similar argument from various camps that artists “shouldn’t” critique or curate fine art exhibitions. However, they do and will continue to do so all around the world; and I believe that arts programming is enriched by this practice. Prestigious contemporary art magazines including Art in America (USA), Art Papers (USA), C Magazine (Canada), and a/n International (UK) are peppered with reviews by visual artists. Some of the most interesting exhibitions I have seen worldwide are conceived and organized by artists. This is surely not for the lack of strictly trained art critics, especially in the case of larger urban centres, but because artists are heavily engaged and “educated” in their arts (either from institutional programs or experience or both). Artists cultivate active communities of like-minded people where ideas are constantly exchanged and discussed. In arts juries for grants and fellowships, the judgment of artists themselves is held in high estimation in a “jury of one’s peers”.

    In Asheville as anywhere arts writers are assigned the shows they review. When they are not enamoured of the various qualities of these shows, it is their prerogative to write unfavourable reviews else they compromise their own integrity as arts professionals. The point of the arts review is to give the art patrons a subjective sense of the piece – it’s strengths and / or weaknesses. The patrons then choose to take or leave it, forming their own opinion, and sometimes aligning themselves with a particular reviewer based on an allegiance with his or her taste and opinions.

    One final point: in the case of the Crazy Bag review above, the writer’s primary education is in writing, not theatre. Having read infinite badly written reviews of arts across the world, I find his a breath of fresh air and a pleasure to read, whether positive or negative, and whether or not I agree with his particular subjective view.

  13. skiplunch

    I think that some people feel the Mountain Express “critics” have annointed themselves the arbiters of what is credible and what is not when it comes to theatre. Having moved here from a much larger city many of us feel that the theatre here is really pretty bad regardless of who is reviewing it.

  14. Sacred Cow

    Wah. It’s not New York. Wah. It’s not Seattle. I’m sick and tired of hearing how small time our fair city is compared to the major metropoli. Asheville is a small, small city with a surprisingly deep talent pool. Can you fairly compare it to cities 10X it’s size? No. No you cannot. No one has “annointed” themselves as arbiters of anything. Two academics and two theatre folk were asked to write objective reviews for the free weekly paper and they do. That’s all that’s happening here. Seriously, the BG Caubles of the world need to chill out, and Skip Lunch and his ‘many’ friends can just pass our little community on by. Contribute, improve or keep moving people.

  15. Asheville has been home base for many talented actors and actresses for more than 20 years. There is talent now, there was talent then, and I imagine there will be talent in the future. The only problem we have is that the old talent and new talent have not fully connected. There is much to be learned from both groups. Thankful for all of the talent – old, new and yet to be seen.

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