“Vaud Rats” at Balagan Theatre

These days, I seem to catch the last night of several performances. “Vaud Rats” was one of those, so my review is a little untimely.

“Vaud Rats” is a solo performance described by the playwright/performer as a “ukelele operetta.” The show’s plot revolves around a washed-up vaudevillian’s life — his rise to pseudo fame on the vaudeville stage at the decline of the art form, his series of torrid love affairs/business partnerships with women he tours with, and finally his intense relationship with an abused woman whose jealous husband attempts to murder her and our hero (our hero is the sole survivor, I think). The show takes place to an audience of rats — our hero indicates early on that we, the audience, are the rats, and also “the best audience” he’s played to in awhile.

I wish that I liked this show more. I did love the music, and I thought the actor was an absolute virtuoso. He had every vaudeville joke and facial expression and accent down to a T. He did them so perfectly, in fact, that I lost track of the main character in all the insanity of character switches. I also lost track of most of the plot. And, to top it all off, I wasn’t sure why this show was important. Why did this poor washed-up performer need to tell his story? Why did he choose an audience of rats? And why did he only refer to us as rats in the first 5 minutes of the show, then treat us as human beings from then on?

On the surface, this show is very entertaining. The actor uses his ukelele as a stand-in for himself (with a hat) or sometimes as female performers on stage with him (sans hat); sometimes his coat would be him, as he portrayed another character, or sometimes the coat would be a stand-in for another person he, the main character, was talking to; the romance between himself and an opera-singing, accordion-playing midget was told through a sad song and a puppet show performed using his feet (he had two different colored socks on, so we could follow who was who more easily). The show has all the trappings of incredible solo story-telling, but only on the outside. Through a combination of poor writing, choppy editing, and/or thick, far-too-accurate accents, I lost most of the points he was trying to make. The show was, in essence, about special effects. It reminds me a lot of most big Hollywood blockbusters these days, that focus far more on the superficial beauty of the final product than on the substance of the story. I see theatre as essentially different from movies for this specific reason: theatre is more effective at telling stories than film, because Hollywood, and even most non-Hollywood indie movies, have become overly focused on being a beautiful painting in motion. So I was terribly disappointed in this show because there was a lot of pizazz, high comedy, slap-stick, character transformation, and all the trappings invented by small theatres to help convey a story, yet there was no importance to the thin plot behind it.

I also wasn’t sure exactly how insane this character was supposed to be. He’d certainly had a bi-polar life. Was he supposed to be the embodiment of the glittery, loud, over-the-top downfall of vaudeville? Was he supposed to be some poor schmoe caught up in the tide? Was he supposed to be a tragic hero who rises, phoenix-like, from the ashes to continue as a performer? Was it supposed to be a comment on modern theatre and the state of small theatres across the United States? Why wasn’t it more like a stand-up act — why did he have to switch between so many different characters?

I think the story could have been told far more simply and it would have made more sense. Too many things seemed patchworked together, and the patchworking didn’t add to the pace of the story — it distracted from it to the point of losing the plot threads.

It was unfortunately difficult to watch because it was visually and aurally overwhelming, and while the main character and the directors did a very nice job, the focus was too much on the “special effects” that actors and directors employ to enhance plots, without any kind of important, meaningful, or coherent plot to enhance. I would have a hard time recommending it, as I think theatre can be more meaningful, and have more impact, while still remaining simple. Theatre doesn’t need to try that hard to impress.

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