by Gail M. Burns, January 2006
If you have never seen Dirck Toll, and there are probably more of you who haven’t than who have, he is a humor writer and performance artist who writes and performs his own material in one-man shows around the region. He does not “tell jokes” and therefore is not a stand-up comic. His work tends towards a longer narrative form. But he also doesn’t tell stories, in the manner of Bill Cosby. Toll’s work is specific, satiric, and carefully crafted.
Last spring’s Irregular Opposition, was Toll’s first foray into telling one sustained story on stage. Before and After Intermission, which he performed on January 21 at Caffè Lena in Saratoga Springs, is a return to his more usual format featuring several separate, unrelated comic vignettes. He has done a nice job of varying the tone and pace of the pieces to showcase his versatility as a writer and as a performer. Only one piece teeters on the brink of being unfunny, otherwise the segments are amusing to various degrees giving the audience’s brains a break from non-stop hilarity, which can be exhausting!
Toll’s specialty as a writer is what I have dubbed the Ladles and Jellyspoons School. I don’t know how many of you are familiar with that foolish poem, but it begins:
“Ladles and Jellyspoons,
I come before you to stand behind you
To tell you something I know nothing about…”
Toll expands on this simple silly idea and turns it in to a roaring river of oxymoronic axioms that don’t actually make sense but sound like they might. Whether or not they have meaning, they are funny, and Toll delivers them with all the conviction of an ultra-serious infomercial spokesman. He opens and closes Before and After Intermission with one of these specialty rants, which is an excellent choice because they are his strongest material and, from where I sit, his funniest.
A piece involving Toll’s correspondence with a “music producer” promising success for his song for an initial payment of only $296 moved at a slower pace and was based solidly in reality while still being silly to the extreme. Yes, we have all seen those come-ons where aspiring authors, songwriters and lyricists are promised international fame and extravagant fortune if they will invest in self-publishing their work, but in Toll’s universe he actually attempts to establish a working relationship with the shysters, with hilarious results. Using a high-pitched and overly-earnest voice for his side the correspondence, Toll spins a yarn involving the creation and marketing of a set of lyrics called, ultimately, “The New Techno-Funk Blues Hymn.”
Toll spoofed the modern mania for scripted publicity in a piece that involved an illustrious “Public Figure” whose paid spokesman begins spreading the very sort of trashy untruths he is supposed to be refuting. A second paid spokesman is hired to contradict everything the first one says, but in order to prevent a similar scenario from happening again, the Public Figure has everything the second spokesman is to say scripted. The only problem is that the speech writer turns out to be…well, I won’t give it away! While I enjoyed both of the above-mentioned pieces very much, I thought they could have each used a tiny bit of editing. The music piece bogged down a bit in the middle and the media madness segment took too long getting to its conclusion. A faster pace would make these two real comic masterpieces.
There actually was no intermission in Before and After Intermission. Not that the show needed one – it is a zippy 60-75 minute affair – but at one point Toll did unfurl a banner reading “Intermission” which had me ever hopeful of a chance to stretch my legs, only to have those hopes dashed when “Intermission” turned out to be part of the show, not a break in it.
The piece which came the closest to failing was a riff attempting to satirize the concern some people have over the wearing and use of animal furs and skins. The underlying premise is too close to reality. Whether or not you actively boycott such products, there is no denying that living creatures are killed to produce them. People who object to that are not funny, and attempting to make them look ludicrous by carrying the objection to the extreme of boycotting even vegetable-based fibers fell flat.
While the performance was advertised for the black box theatre at Caffè Lena, it actually took place in the café itself because the demand for tickets was greater than the capacity of the black box. The crowd was very nearly greater than the capacity of Lena’s altogether, and people, winter coats, tables and chairs were crammed together in dangerous proximity. I was glad that no one had occasion to yell “Fire!”
I think it is wonderful that Toll has developed such a following, and while I understand his desire to keep the venue intimate, I would encourage him to look for a slightly larger space for future shows. As it was the tiny jerry-rigged stage area looked decidedly wedged into the corner of the room. There was more of a set for Before and After Intermission than there had been for Irregular Opposition and I, and undoubtedly others in the room, were unable to see and appreciate its all of its aspects because of the close quarters and awkward angles.
Since I don’t live in the Saratoga area, I hadn’t seen the posters for Before and After Intermission until the night of the show and when I did see them I was struck that Toll’s eyes were visible in the featured photograph. His previous publicity photos had obscured his face, and I remarked after seeing Irregular Opposition that I was almost disappointed to discover that Toll had a face, and a fairly pleasant and average one at that, after being marketed this “mystery man”. The photo used for this show still kept the air of mystery, but revealed more of the man, a move I applaud.
I was sorry to hear that Toll has had a hard time medically over the past year, and I did notice that this performance was less physically challenging than the one I saw in May. It is a testament to the healing power of creativity that he has crafted and performed three shows during these difficult months. Through it all, on stage and off, Toll continues to receive enthusiastic support from his preschool-age daughter, who, taking a break from laughing uproariously at her father’s routine at Lena’s, was heard to remark happily, “My daddy is so funny.” I heartily concur.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006