Randy Rutherford's show,This May Feel A Little Funny, is now playing at The Marsh Theater on Valencia Street. The performance takes place on a small stage under a gorgeous open-beam redwood ceiling that arches over head, lending the entire proceedings a homey, barnlike feel. While I waited for the performance to begin, strains of Willie Nelson drifted from the speakers. Despite having just stepped in from San Fran's mecca of bohemian hipness, I felt as though we were gathered in the community center of some small, rural town.
The personal nature of Rutherford's piece is well-suited to the venue. During his monologue he tells the story of how, after turning forty and divorcing, after experiencing a progressive hearing loss that leaves him dependent on two hearing aids and the strength of his other senses, he finds himself at a California dance camp/retreat. Every attendee (except Rutherford, apparently) is expressive and uninhibited. Rutherford, who's self-conscious about meeting women, his dancing skills, and his deafness, chooses to watch rather than participate. One dancer is a bewitching married woman who flits around the room from man-to-man. We leave this scene and jump ahead ten years. Now, Mr. Rutherford's touring and playing his guitar on stage. He's been invited to perform in a distant California town and guess who's in charge of the venue? Randy falls in love, and at the suggestion of his new mate, subjects himself to a healthier lifestyle in which he eats (many) vegetables, drinks bitter organic wines, and consents to a terrifying "cleansing" enema.
While Mr. Rutherford addresses the insecurities of being middle-aged and suddenly alone (and who, really, is adequately prepared for this?), there's something extremely reassuring about his charming delivery. He has a habit of addressing the audience directly, interrupting himself often to ask how we're doing. In the wrong hands this device could be intrusive and annoying. But Mr. Rutherford presents his monologue as though he's telling a story to a group of kind-souled but skeptical listeners; ultimately, he wins us over. At certain points during his monologue, Mr. Rutherford strums his guitar and sings snippets from old folk tunes -- you'll surely recognize them when you hear them. His musical presentation is gentle and pleasant. He seems right at home in our little city/big town.
Also reassuring is Randy Rutherford's brand of humor, which seems to belong to another era. Perhaps that's because he's so positive -- in our times, humor is most often constructed on a firm foundation of sneering; we most often laugh at someone else's expense because the current climate makes us deeply insecure. But Rutherford pokes fun at his own impairment and his resulting self-consciousness about it without jabbing out at the world, too. It's quite clear from his monologue that his self-consciousness originates not with others but within himself -- I find the stance both unusual and brave. Randy Rutherford performs sans his hearing aids and manages to sing gorgeously and in tune. Clearly he doesn't need the devices to express himself, and through personal expression Mr. Rutherford has beaten his adversities. Now THAT'S inspiring.
Don't get me wrong: Randy Rutherford's performance is heartwarming, but he's offering more than simple cracker-barrel philosophy. At times he expresses his nightmares in a way that's downright abstract. This is especially apparent when Rutherford acts out his post-enema anxieties, personifying them by modulating his voice, twisting his limbs, and presenting us with a rapid succession of conflicting fears. In these moments, you might recognize the influence of sophisticated body-actors like Robin Williams.
At the end of the night, Mr. Rutherford reveals that from his west-coast lover, he learned to open up. And what a nice thought to carry out of the theater and onto the streets of San Francisco. Our region has a reputation for self-examination, insight, and openness. That's what I love about our part of California, and I do believe that performers like Randy Rutherford mean to perpetuate this reputation by reinforcing its truth.
This May Feel a Little Funny runs through December 2, 2006 at the Marsh. For tickets and information visit themarsh.org.