by Gail M. Burns, October 2006

“…someplace between the twin extremes of Artifice and Edifice…” lies the writing of Dirck Toll. In this review you will find several direct quotes from his work so that you can get a taste of his inimitable style.

Prior to seeing Relax – I Brought Enough Ego for Everybody, which Dirck Toll performed as the first half of a double bill with Irregular Opposition on September 23 at Caffe Lena, I had a hard time explaining Dirck Toll.

“What are you going to see in Saratoga?” people would ask me. And I would say, “Dirck Toll” which was not a very enlightening answer in and of itself. “What kind of a toll?” people would ask. “He’s a…a…monologist. He’s like a stand-up comic only there’s more of a story. And he’s funny, its not that he’s not funny, he’s very funny, but he’s not a stand-up comic. Maybe he’s a performance artist, except his art is his writing and his delivery. Like an actor. He is acting, but he’s alone on the stage so he plays all the parts. When there are parts. Which there aren’t always…”

At this point the eyes of the person to whom I was speaking would have glazed over and they would be looking desperately to escape my company at the earliest convenience.

But leave it to Dirck Toll to know exactly who Dirck Toll is. Dirck Toll is an innovative humorist. It says so on all of his publicity so I was rather thick not to get the point before, but a brief piece in Relax – I Brought Enough Ego for Everybody explained it to me clearly. I should explain that Relax… is comprised of five short pieces, and it was the fourth piece, titled Evolution, that I found so enlightening.

Toll started the piece lying face-downward on the floor, where he started reciting a long list of terms referring to people who perform more or less alone and primarily verbally. As he recited he changed his position to indicate the ranking he gave each occupation. The list began with “mime” (the lowest of the low) and proceeded upwards to “magicians who do comedy” (a middling rank) then back down again to “most performance artists,” and finally back up to a standing position for “humorists” beyond which, on tippy-toes, Toll pronounced himself the highest form of performer. And there you have it.

Dirck Toll is an innovative humorist and as such he ranks above stand-up comedians, actors, and performance artists, not to mention bingo announcers, ventriloquists, televangelists, and the Solid Gold Dancers.

As you might gather from the title of Relax… and from the superior evolutionist ranking Toll has given himself, Toll’s on-stage persona is all about ego. Relax… begins a piece called The Opposite of Self-Effacing. Toll enters from the back of the house to recite a long series of sentences beginning with the word “I.” They range from the mundane “I am Dirck Toll” to the truly lofty “I have the artistic ambition to wrap the artist Christo in wax paper” with several delightfully daffy side-trips into non-sequitur.

“I’ll show you.
I’ll show them all.
I’ll show up for work wearing nothing but pancakes.”

And while Toll is assuredly an innovative humorist, he is primarily a writer who happens to perform his own work. Work that he has written to perform.

A few weeks ago I saw the Berkshire Theatre Festival production of David Hare’s monologue Via Dolorosa in which the actor Jonathan Epstein played the playwright David Hare playing a carefully crafted stage version of himself. After seeing it, I immediately go a hold of Acting Up, Hare’s published diary of the experience of preparing and presenting Via Dolorosa in London and New York. Hare has been a successful playwright for decades, but, as he says in the early lines of the monologue, he usually leaves the acting to Judi Dench. Playwrights do not usually write pieces in which they intend to perform themselves. Actors are not usually writers.

And I think that is why I had pin-pointed Toll as a monologist. The people I am familiar with who write solo pieces for themselves – Will Rogers, Spalding Gray, Ruth Draper, Garrison Keillor – are usually referred to as such. In a recent article in Saratoga Today Toll cites Bill Cosby, another outstanding contemporary monologist, as his imspiration. And yet monologists don’t even figure on Toll’s evolutionary scale. I wonder where they would rank?

Relax… also includes a very funny send-up of a commencement speech, which contains nuggets of wisdom such as:
“…it won’t be all whiskey and pizza and hair curlers when you get out into the real world. There will also be plungers and telemarketers and lots of hard choices about lettuce.”

And it concludes with a piece about a man trying desperately to perform at a poetry open mic session which is cleverly constructed of sentences with two clauses linked by the conjunction “and.” Each sentence begins with a repetition of the second clause of the sentence that comes before it, giving the whole piece a nice rhythm while reinforcing the storyline.

Along the way there is the obligatory shameless plug to buy Dirck Toll merchandise in which Toll presents himself to the audience “…like every other whore in artist’s clothing…” with a pledge that the only goods he will ever peddle are “…actual creative works…,” a denouncement of “…such practices as separating the wheat from the chaff and selling the chaff as ‘collectible,’” and a guarantee that his works “…will not be constantly adapted, revised, recombined, or gentrified.” Toll has a book entitled Loud, a cassette recording called Kwest for Knowledge/Fall Back On To Something, both of which I can highly recommend, and some postcards that I have never clapped eyes on, but I am sure they are 100% Dirck Toll and therefore worthy of your attention.

The second half of the show was Irregular Opposition which I had seen before. This is Toll’s first foray into a longer, sustained story, and it is a charming satire on the evils of corporate culture. In it our hero, who has invented an anti-theft device for bicycles, finds his fledging attempt to market it thwarted by Effluvio Thwarthole of the Lungsfreund Tobacco Company. Thwarthole’s diabolical plan, it appears, is to starve the public of novelty so that when the next big thing comes along – a product carefully crafted and positioned by Thwarthole, naturally – consumers will be unable to resist its lure.

I found I still enjoyed Irregular Opposition on a second viewing, and hope Toll will continue to experiment with longer pieces. His absurdist sensibility is well-suited to storytelling and his literary contortions are more easily enjoyed with a plot to support them.

The audience plays a vital role in any theatrical performance, and it is the one element of the production over which no one behind the scenes as any control. Unlike the performers on the stage, an audience’s performance is completely improvised – they have no rehearsal and don’t even get to see the script in advance – they just walk into the theatre and do their thing. For the performer, it is an experience not unlike getting astride a different horse every night. In order to ride comfortably and safely, you must match yourself to the horse’s gait. It you perch yourself stiff and rigid on the animal’s back you will be miserably uncomfortable – until you fall off.

The last two times I have seen Toll perform it was to enthusiastic sold-out houses at evening performances. Those audiences played by the rules. They laughed and clapped and were fully engaged in Toll’s performance. This time I found myself a member of a rather small, dead, and discombobulated 4 p.m. matinee audience. Toll tried valiantly to match his rhythm to the audience’s, but they were an easily distracted lot, and then a bunch of them came in about half-way through Relax… and it took them a while to figure out what was going on.

So Dirck Toll was badly outnumbered. And I apologize to him for our collective poor performance in the role of 4 pm Matinee Audience. I have no doubt that the evening performance was well-attended and well-received as his previous outings at Caffe Lena have been. And no matter how pathetic the 4 pm audience was in general, Toll still had the enduring support of his charming pre-school aged daughter who greeted his entrance with her customary cry of “Daddy!” I am suspecting that it won’t be too many years before I am invited to attend a performance featuring Toll & Toll.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006

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