THEATER | “Spilling Me Softly” at the Brave New Workshop: Politically charged, but also defused

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Having just written a blog entry defending the Minnesota Fringe Festival against my friend Carl Atiya Swanson, who half-jokingly called himself “the Twin Cities Fringe Grinch,” I’m going to blow my indie-theater karma points and take on the mantle of the Brave New Workshop Grinch. BNW’s new show Spilling Me Softly is the first of their productions I’ve seen, because I’d always guessed (correctly, as it happens) that their brand of comedy wasn’t really up my alley. An archive of posters in the theater’s lobby testifies to a five-decade history of grabbing the lowest-hanging fruit for satire, from Nixon to Bachmann. Why pay $29, I wondered, for two hours of comedy you could get for free on any drivetime radio show corresponding to your political leanings?

But the company is a local legend. Founder Dudley Riggs, who was in the audience at Friday night’s opening of Spilling Me Softly, received a 2009 Ivey Award for lifetime achievement, and his life is the subject of an upcoming production at the Minnesota History Theatre. Multiple BNW alumni, most notably Al Franken, have gone on to national fame. I had to give the Brave New Workshop a chance.

spilling me softly, presented at the brave new workshop. for tickets ($29) and information, see bravenewworkshop.org

The Brave New Workshop certainly can’t be accused of false advertising. It is indeed a workshop—the sketch-based shows follow collaboratively created scripts, but some elements are improvised each night—and it is brave. There’s D-Day bravery, though, and then there’s Pickett’s Charge bravery. It’s brave to write satire about environmental disasters and undocumented immigrants, but if you’re going to be brave, you need a good battle plan or you’re just throwing your troops to the wolves.

Not that the Friday night audience was wolf-like in any respect beyond its howls of laughter. It may have been an especially sympathetic opening-night audience (you wouldn’t believe the uproarious reception Mel Brooks’s thuddingly unfunny Robin Hood: Men in Tights met when I saw it in a sold-out theater on its opening night), but the packed house laughed straight through Spilling Me Softly. It seems safe to say that if you think you’ll find the Brave New Workshop funny, you probably will.

Spilling Me Softly spoofs just about every major headline—nationally and locally—from the past six months, but in its rush to touch all the bases, it misses most of them. A waitress throws a glass of water in Tom Emmer’s face. Fire burns in Michele Bachmann’s pupils. An undocumented Mexican immigrant is hired to replace one of the show’s actors, and also to sweep the stage floor. At the end of the show, a cast member grabs two beers and escapes down a slide.

I guess the shameless squeezing of as many automatic punchlines as possible into two acts of sketch comedy is the fun of the show—if, indeed, you regard that as fun—but the lowest common denominator of well-educated liberals is still a pretty low common denominator. Spilling Me Softly reminded me of a comment Daily Planet editor Mary Turck made about a local pundit: “He’s one of those unfortunate people who thinks that just because he’s a liberal, that means he’s smart.” (The BNW is nonpartisan, but their jabs at Obama are understandably even weaker than their jabs at his foes. These are tough times for comics who aim to mock both conservatives and liberals; 1994, with Clinton facing off against Gingrich, was a rare golden era.)

I have nothing against dumb comedy, but dumb comedy about serious issues is problematic. Some things can only be taken so lightly. The Daily Planet pays special attention to immigrant communities; Mary Turck won a Page One award from the Society of Professional Journalists for her article telling the story of a child who’s growing up without seeing his father as the boy’s father fights for the right to return to the United States from his native Ghana. We’re about to publish the story of two Latina women, U.S. citizens born in America, who were detained at the Mexican border by U.S. officials because of their history of participating in protests. “I’ll bet you won’t be going to any more protests now,” said one of the immigration officers, “will you?”

Spilling Me Softly features the character of a stereotypical Mexican immigrant, played with deadpan skill by a sombrero-wearing, mustachioed, serape-clad Josh Eakright. In Mexico he was an oncologist, but in the U.S. he’s forced into menial labor by unappreciative Americans who have little understanding of his native culture (an entire skit milks laughs from Americans’ poor Spanish, which is funny, but not as funny as ¿Que Hora Es?). It’s not offensive, it’s just disappointing to see a hoary ethnic stereotype rolled out in the service of obvious jokes that make broad observations the audience already agrees with. If you’re going to go there, why not go there for a reason?

I gave a glowing review to The Scottsboro Boys, which actually has actors dancing in blackface, but that show had interesting things to say and took the time and care to say them well. Spilling Me Softly flirts with actually saying something in a sketch where Eakright becomes an iMmigrant, following middle-class Americans around and doing their every bidding as sort of a human smartphone. It’s a great premise, and could have been the basis for really twisting the knife in those of us who wouldn’t be comfortable ordering a guy in a serape to do menial tasks for us but who happily benefit from cutting-edge gadgets that we can only afford because they’re manufactured abroad by workers making significantly less than their U.S. counterparts. But Spilling Me Softly director Caleb McEwan wasn’t going to let a sketch stick around for that long, or get that uncomfortable…so it was right back to the Bachmann jokes and the Inception parody.

Of course, I gather it’s precisely that send-em-up-the-flagpole-and-see-who-salutes attitude that endears the BNW to its legions of fans. I just can’t say that I’m among them.