The latest installment of 35Below’s Listen to This: Stories in Performance on Thursday, November 18, was aptly titled I Can’t Believe I Ate The Whole Thing: Glorious Tales of Gluttony. Part performance, part storytelling (but not a “tellebration”, Chalmers pointed out), the Listen to This series offers a laid-back atmosphere for performers to tell largely personal stories linked by an overarching theme, mostly to comedic effect.
The vibe in the theatre was that of a stand-up comedy club with fewer drinks and a much more patient and focused audience, and the series offers an opportunity for audience members to attend the theatre without any concern about stuffiness, overt seriousness, or formality. Chalmers likened Listen to This to “This American Life, without the socialist agenda,” the first joke in a evening of many.
Past shows have explored stories of camping, diary entries and ghost stories, but this month’s installment concerned itself loosely with Thanksgiving and mostly with pigging out. Four performers made for an evening of an hour-twenty without intermission, and a nice tapas-style arrangement of entertainment.
Tom Chalmers, who is best known in Asheville for his yearly stint as Crumpet in The Santaland Diaries at Asheville Community Theatre, hosts the evening and also performed a story. Betsey Puckett, of LYLAS, started off the evening with her story, titled with apology “Shit My Dog Ate.” Puckett’s dog, Winnebago, provided Puckett’s past move to Los Angeles with a backdrop of chocolate sheet-cake gorging, peanut-butter jar inhalation and other indulgences Puckett has fondly labeled “poopisodes.” She has a personable and easygoing presence that makes the audience immediately feel friendly and intimate, and her comic delivery is well-timed.
Second on the docket was Chalmers himself, regaling the audience with a tale of youthful love decimated by the freshman year of college, and being dumped over the phone immediately before Thanksgiving dinner and put in the awkward position of either destroying his mother’s carefully prepared feast by not eating a single bite, or forcing himself through heartbreak to ingest a buffet.
Chalmers has the unassuming presence of a guy you’d meet in a long line at a bank who then brightens the rest of your day with his self-deprecating witticisms and hilarious phrasings, and his persona works perfectly in the show’s context. Most endearingly Chalmers called his brother, whose birthday happened to be that day, and had the audience sing to him on his voicemail, explaining “I always call him on his birthday if I’m onstage and have the audience sing.” Chalmers also planned another interlude, an audience participation segment involving marshmallows and the childhood game “Pudgy Bunnies,” which went a long way in solidifying the feeling that the audience was all at a fun party where things got endearingly juvenile.
Josh Batenhorst, the regular director of Chalmers in The Santaland Diaries, was the only performer who hadn’t done a Listen to This series performance before, and the lack of experience showed in his story as he seemed to lose his narrative thread and momentum a few times. A bit more preparation and focus next time will inevitably produce a stronger offering from Batenhorst.
The evening closed with Waylon Wood’s recounting of his southern childhood Thanksgivings, complete with fried turkey, stolen pies and shirtless relatives. Wood was the only performer who adopted a seated position and a more formal delivery while reading, which worked elegantly to give his story a beautiful arc and resonation and brought the evening to a fitting conclusion.
One or two more stories, perhaps a bit shorter in length, would have rounded out the evening to fullness nicely. The next Listen to This evening will not be until January, to allow for Batenhorst and Chalmers to do their yearly Christmas show at ACT, but Chalmers loosely promised forthcoming shows involving themes of sports, Valentine’s Day and others. Keep an eye on http://www.ashevilletheatre.org for information about further shows, and for details on The Santaland Diaries.