In Praise of Poop Jokes
Toilet Fire and the Merits of Unserious Theatre
Let’s face it: more often than not, theatre is serious. When most laypeople think of “theatre” with a capital “T” (or an “re”), they imagine Hamlet conversing with a skull or Stanley Kowalski shouting to the heavens. As oft aped and ripe for parody as these images are, they themselves are not intended to be funny. They are, like countless theatrical moments since the time of Sophocles, stern, somber, and severe. The term “serious theatre” exists for a reason—despite the existence of genuinely funny theatrical experiences in New York and elsewhere, many continue to presume that theatre is, at its very core, serious.
Eliza Bent is out to change that.
In her new immersive performance piece Toilet Fire, which played through November 14 at Abrons Arts Center on the Lower East Side, Ms. Bent gleefully leads her audiences through a sermon on shitting. On the show’s website, she forewarns, “There will be puns. There will be poo,” and she doesn’t fail to deliver on either. Preshow, the audience is led into a cavernous concrete room reminiscent of a 1970s bomb shelter, at which Bent and her cantor, the funny and talented Alaina Ferris, have constructed an altar to the anus. The elaborate set includes a stage-spanning curtain made from strips of toilet paper, two toilet seats mounted on a center podium, and a series of pedestals topped with various instruments of defecation—a plunger, a bottle of hand sanitizer, etc. Ferris plays a beautiful ambient piano as would-be parishioners file in past a merchandise table selling, among other things, printed bathroom haikus and sink and toilet miniatures. Though I didn’t attempt to buy any goods, I believe they were, in fact, for sale. And not for cheap… the miniatures, though intricate, will run you $39.95 each.
The elaborate set includes a stage-spanning curtain made from strips of toilet paper, two toilet seats mounted on a center podium, and a series of pedestals topped with various instruments of defecation—a plunger, a bottle of hand sanitizer, etc.
Once everyone is seated, Bent, dressed in a cape and a short gray wig, welcomes everyone to the “Blerch of Our Blight.” She then wishes the assembled good tidings for a “Happy Keester” and the end of “Blent.” From there, the diarrhea of puns comes out hot and heavy. Calling herself a “gluten” for punishment, Bent’s preacher leads her congregation through a treatise on the nature of digestion, all in the name of the nutritionally multifarious deity “Gourd Cheez-It Rice.” Various corporeal hymnals adapted from the Christian tradition (played on piano and sung by Ferris) punctuate the preacher’s words. “Angels We Have Heard On High” becomes “Toilet Time,” and “Here I am, Lord” is “Here I am, Gourde [sic].” Ferris does a spirited job encouraging the audience to join in her songs using lyrics projected against the toilet paper curtain, while offering hilariously sad non-sequiturs about missing her family or wanting to meet the child she sponsors in Burkina Faso. Ferris’ piano also covers transitions, of which there are several, as Bent follows her opening remarks by changing into the outfit of one of the many characters she will portray throughout the night. They include a gastrically challenged Italian, a former TWA flight attendant, and a gruff donation collector prone to hyperbole. Bent is a charismatic, confident performer who embodies each of these personas with ease and panache. She later confesses, as herself, that she has infused each character’s speeches with her own true tales of (and perspectives on) digestive difficulty. Though hailing from different cultures and backgrounds, Bent’s imagined personalities are all united by one thing: poop.
It’s far from high art, but what Bent is doing with Toilet Fire is important… She is not afraid to be as bizarre and puerile as she wants to be in the name of entertainment.
Without getting too technical, that is what Toilet Fire is all about: poop. Crap. Excrement. It flies the flag for feces, and it does so with pride. Not only does it unflinchingly confront the most disgusting part of our (hopefully) everyday, it does so shamelessly. Bent’s devil-may-care attitude towards matters of manure is what keeps this show afloat, allowing it to hurl pun after pun without getting weighed down by superfluous self-importance.
Loosely directed by Kevin Laibson, artistic director of the Peoples Improv Theater, Bent treats the proceedings as an opportunity to indulge whatever silliness and clever wordplay tickles her fancy. It’s not often that one gets to construct an entire show around human waste, and Bent wastes nothing. She leaves no stone unturned and no turd unstoned… or something like that. She would surely appreciate that joke, just as her audiences seemingly appreciate hers. At the performance I attended, one man found the show particularly amusing… every single word of it. Channeling his inner six-year-old, he appeared unable to control himself as his loud guffaws echoed around the makeshift church. Who could blame him? He was watching an unapologetically goofy piece of art—one from which much of the serious theatre in this town could take a lesson.
It’s far from high art, but what Bent is doing with Toilet Fire is important. She does what most haven’t, won’t, or can’t, whether out of superciliousness, inability, or self-doubt. She is not afraid to be as bizarre and puerile as she wants to be in the name of entertainment. She makes a fool of herself to show her audiences they can do it, too, and aside from a brief conclusion during which Bent touches on religious dualism as it relates to her own bathroom guilt, she does it all without concern for the serious. These days, thanks mostly to academia, theatre professionals often feel that comedy must be rooted firmly in the worlds of clown, gesture, or Commedia. If these faux-intellectual trappings entered Bent’s mind, she didn’t show it… and thank goodness. Through her base humor and fearless foolishness, unburdened by the expectations of Theatre, she succeeds at doing what her medium does best: holding a mirror up to society. We all poop, yet we’re all afraid to talk about it. The act of pooping is ridiculous, but being unable to talk about it is just as ridiculous. It’s ridiculous to develop a theatrical work about a church of poop, but its just as ridiculous not to. Can’t we agree that the whole world is ridiculous?
Maybe, just maybe, theatre can be, too.