High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Location: Chicago, Illinois, United States

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Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Totally Pointy

Another day, another volunteer experience at the Old Town School of Folk Music. This time your intrepid bringer of death to growing things skipped the adolescents and went straight for the children. Turns out I can eat a whole one.

I don't know if volunteers disappear into the woodwork, have sudden attacks of gout, or urgently need to grout their tile during kids' shows the way they seem to for teen open mic night. I do know that the number of volunteers on hand suggested that this assignment was going to be much more difficult than it turned out to be. In addition to me, there were three or so individuals about my age and a family of four (from a pretty distant suburb) that included a 12-year-old girl and a 16-ish boy.

Sign in and orientation were easy (tear tickets, send adults without kids up to the balcony, and tell everyone to squish in because the show is sold out), so we sat around discussing whether the 12-year-old was arleady in the process of turning evil or if the transformation would happen all at once on her 13th birthday. (Her mom was in on this and she was laughing it up about the whole thing, so this is not gratuitous aggression against near-teenagers on my part.)

K (the mother) and I got to talking about long hauls to volunteering (their commute was even longer than mine), and she said that they do it (and have gotten their kids involved) as an integral part of the fight against suburban homogeny, ennui, and the "tupperware crowd" (her words, but I liked them. I also like tupperware, so please not to be burping for freshness in my direction for insulting the storage containers of your ancestors). They also go to lots of music festivals (including one in the Catskills), spend time at their log cabin on Lake Placid (covet covet), and in general keep themselves sane and their kids exposed to new and different things whenever possible.

A similar philosophy seemed to be governing a lot of the crowd. The place was packed with young parents, older parents, grandparents, and the young of our species ranging from larval to just about to bust out of the cocoon. My cov-olunteers and I were initially surprised by the number of adults who were there entirely without beards. Certainly some seemed to be one step removed from the production or the performers, but the rest seemed to be there for the man of the hour: Harry Nilsson.

Nilsson turns out to be one of a group of people I like to call "Oh yeah! That guy!" In case he's not in your "that guy" posse: He wrote Three Dog Night's "One (Is the Loneliest Number"), a bunch of songs for The Monkees, and was thrown out (along with some kid from Liverpool) of a club for heckling the Smothers Brothers. I didn't know about his complicity in Robert Altman's Popeye, but one doesn't like to speak ill of the dead.

This show, Getting to the Point was a celebration in narration, puppetry, and song of Nilsson's animated film The Point. The site to which I've been linking quotes Nilsson regarding his inspiration for the story:

"I was on acid and I looked at the trees and I realized that they all came to points, and the little branches came to points, and the houses came to point. I thought, 'Oh! Everything has a point, and if it doesn't, then there's a point to it'."

This clearly speaks to the hypothesis generated last week in Kansas City while watching Thomas the Tank Engine (a show so bizarre that Fellini would have had wackadoo envy), namely that without the free-flowing pharmaceuticals of the 1960s, legitimate children's television would not exist.

I've never actually seen The Point (which is shocking in itself, it being the first full-length, animated TV film and all!), but I certainly recognized many of the songs (or at least the style of them)once the show started.

For the production, the band was on stage, dressed all in white with the required pointed hats. Robbie Fulks (banjo, vocals, voice of Evil Count, immense tallness), Casey McDonough (Bass, voice of King and Rock Man, Drew Carey look-alike), Kelly Hogan (Vocals, Pom Pons, voice of Arrow, bitchin' back-up singer dance moves), and Nora O'Connor (Vocals, Pom Pons, Bubbles, voice of Count's Son, also with the dance moves) were on a small platform. Susan Voelz (violin, bell, out of my siteline, primarily, but also great, I'm sure) was stage left of them, just downstage of Scott Ligon (piano, voice of Oblio, Peter Tork haircut), and Jason Toth (Drums, completely hidden from me at all times) was across from him, upstage right.

This left the downstage half of the stage for the puppets and puppeteers as well as for Adeoye, the Narrator (how does a man gain the confidence to walk in shoes worn by Dustin Hoffman, Ringo Starr, AND Alan Thicke, I ask you?). The puppeteers wore all black and had painters caps with beekeeper veils of shiny, black, and (one presumes) semitransparent material. The puppets were gorgeous, relatively simple things with a central supporting pole and arm supports. They got a tremendous amount of humor and emotion out of the puppets, and the kids went absolutely mad for them both during the intro to the show when they worked the crowd and afterward when it seemed like every munchkin wanted at least 3 pictures with every single character.

The story, of course, is a bit . . . well . . . 1971. You have a character sans point in the land of the pointed who gets along pretty well until The Man and The Son of the Man try to bring him down. He leaves the land of the pointed for the Pointless Forest, which turns out to be filled with the Differently Pointed. There's a very distinct "And then a lotta shit happens. I mean it's HEAVY. You dig, man?" section in the center that must have been a challenge for Brigid Murphy (or maybe not . . . she seems multitalented and very busy, which is good news for me). And then the character inexplicably returns from exile to deliver Nilsson's acid revelation, and it's all good.

The show was absolutely brimming with love for The Point, hokey 70s-ness and all. And like most things made with affection laced with irony, it worked for everyone there. The kids (who were better behaved than most of the opening night crowd at Lyric) were having a great time; their parents were engaged, attentive, and courteous, and the unaccompanied adults were pretty rapt, too. Postshow, the performers and puppets mingled with the audience and, a testament to puppet coolness and performer skill, none of the kids was screaming in fear at them.

Another totally easy peasy volunteer assignment and a fun one. Only now I need the soundtrack to The Point so that I can confirm or deny whether it really does contain a song all about saltwater decomposition. (And it's not too good for drinkin').

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