As anyone who follows Saturday Night Live can tell you — from painful personal experience — sketch comedy is hard to sustain over the long haul. Achieving the hilarity objective is so difficult when the same writers must go after it week after week on a deadline. It helps a little when the current news supplies juicy targets for venting venom. Watching topnotch performers gleefully violating the norms of faithful imitation, intellectual discourse, and fair play is classic TV. That wild element can be far, far better in a nightclub or a live theater setting.
So hail to the Dysfunctional Figurines, Charlotte’s newest sketch comedy contenders. Hamstrung by their reluctance to lampoon local or national figures, they’ve already delivered two full evenings at the new CAST complex on 28th Street within the past four months at a consistently high level.
Common to both Etch-A-Sketch in July and Sketch-A-Rama earlier this month, ace comedienne Julie Janorschke-Gawle and writer/performer Tom Olsen have done the most to establish the tone of the troupe. Gayle Taggart was the third enduring Figurine at Sketch-A-Rama, not figuring often as the wellspring of the comedy. Usually — and capably — performing secondary or non-comic roles, Taggart hasn’t really shined since the second segment of Etch-A-Sketch, when she was the persuasive bride-to-be in “Red Velvet Cake, Please.”
Adding edge and spice to the troupe, newcomers Lee Thomas and James Walker II are familiar enough to Charlotte theatergoers. Thomas specializes in lovably cuddly roles, so his Father Paul in “The Blackenator Saves the Catholic Church” was a perfect fit. Watching him as the stoned Kaleo in a series of “The Way I See It” monologues was a welcome change of pace, but by the third monologue, the welcome was wearing out.
Walker brings a raw street presence to the table, perfect for the charlatan Blackenator and two other title roles, the outrageously irrepressible “Pick-Up Artist” and the aggressive UPS Man in “What Can Brown Do for You?” Like Thomas, Walker was playing roles that highlighted his strengths, giving the duo incentives to return for the next Figurines comedy potpourri.
Janorschke-Gawle was most commanding as the new Trinity Broadcast Network chief in “Jesus’ Makeover,” reviving memories of her abrasive turn as the repellent instructor of “Yoga with Trudy” in Etch-A-Sketch. Olsen’s most interesting Sketch-A-Rama character was the human jukebox in “Layover.” Figurines continued their effective practice of setting the scene with rear-screen projections preceding the sketches, as in the airport waiting area for “Layover.” The troupe unveiled a new purpose for their projector as they brought “Internal Affairs,” the Best Picture from the recent Made in Charlotte Film Festival, into the program.
Unfortunately, the volume wasn’t potted up high enough for me to appreciate Olsen’s performance as the Cop or Patrick Keenan’s turn as the Internal Affairs Officer. That was no problem at all for Stephen Barrington, who actually had a line or two as the interrogated Mime. Olsen was the only celluloid Figurine who performed live, so it’s uncertain whether the others will ever achieve three-dimensional status with the company.
Olsen and co-writer Kim Irene Barker penned one fine spot for the third live addition to the Figurines, Glynnis O’Donoghue. She was more than sufficiently dysfunctional as the conservative wingnut President debating liberal firebrand Janorschke-Gawle in “The Rocky Road to the White House.” Both were upstaged by Thomas’s spot-on lampoon of debate moderator Tom Brokaw — but that was no easy feat.
That’s about as topical as the Olsen-Barker team got all evening long as sketches on church and religion outnumbered those on politics by a 3:1 ratio. Reverse that ratio and the Figurines might well become unmissable when they return. Till then, I have no intention of dissing the Dysfunctionals.