Rush Limbaugh in Night School is a comic one man show devoted to considering what would happen if Rush Limbaugh, the famous (infamous?) radio personality, were somehow dropped into the middle of everything he opposes, the so-called counter culture. The author/performer, Charlie Varon, took this seed of an idea and made it grow into a hilarious full fledged intellectual thought experiment that leaves the audience on the edge of their seats, totally enthralled by both the concepts he presents and his masterful creation of over 20 distinct characters during the course of the evening. I was lucky enough to catch this show on its closing night, Sunday November 26, 1995 and I am glad I made it in just under the wire.
The playwright has a long fascination with radio that dates back to when he was just a child, and consequently, he had a radio program in San Francisco for a time. His love for radio undoubtedly inspired this work. If today we were to talk about radio there is no question that the name Rush Limbaugh would be mentioned. His abrasiveness and extreme views are what make him so compelling to listen to. It is like people who stare at a bloody accident scene, compelled to look, but know they will not like what they see. The playwright intended this show to be a parody of Rush Limbaugh and a chance to point out the utter foolishness in how we perceive him and how he perceives himself. This sense of foolishness is fully incorporated in Rush Limbaugh in Night School.
Director, Martin Higgins, allowed the actor/playwright to have much say into both the staging and set design. The director made a conscious effort to minimize the background of the play, both in terms of set and sound, in order to let Mr. Varon be the main focal point. The overall theme of the play was primarily about Rush Limbaugh, and secondly, exploring some of his ideas and policies that are less than popular among the liberal community. I found myself thinking that the director's overall theme of the production revolved around giving Charlie Varon the freedom and space to play and explore. He was not bound by the limits of the stage, but only by the limits of his imagination. Together, the actor and director worked to produce a very relaxed and intimate theatrical experience for the audience. There were several times when the audience became actual members of the play and this added to the overall experience of comfort.
The performer, Charlie Varon, is incredible. His range of character is amazing. He transformed from one person to another with great ease. While his transformations were very smooth, at the same time, he also managed to let the audience know that a transformation had clearly occurred. His characters included people such as Spalding Gray, Jackie Mason, Cokie Roberts, and Homo Ludens. This ease of character switching usually means that the performer has perfected his craft so as to make a difficult task appear effortless. Obviously this was indeed the case here. I felt as if he was having a wonderful time on the stage and that he was telling a story that he found both interesting and entertaining. At times he would ad lib with the audience to play off of what an audience member said. This told me that he was very focused on what he was doing and that he was in the moment. He must have been very comfortable with the script because he could, from what I could tell, deviate from the text momentarily and then jump right back in and find his rhythm again. The show was like his baby. He created it from an idea and then put that idea into words. The love he had for it came through in his performance. He wanted to convey his ideas and thoughts to the audience. He wanted to poke fun at a public figure with whom there is much hype but not a lot of realism. I think he accomplished all this and much more.
The production values incorporated into this show were minimal. The set consisted of a black stage with a chair, a couple of tables to hold a few props, a microphone, a music stand and an On Air sign. I believe that this minimalism worked for this show because the performer was continually changing characters and both his physicality and vocal changes were enough to denote changes in speaker and/or location. I feel that a more elaborate set might have distracted the audience from the performer. The lights, on the other hand, played a very important role in that they were the media used to emphasize a change in location or character. They flowed well from one scene to the next and gave the audience something to hold onto, a clue as to what was going to happen next. They played a much more noticeable role in this show than they would usually because there was no elaborate set to serve as a distraction. This is one of those shows that reinforces the importance of lighting in a theatrical performance.
Because the actor created over twenty characters, his costume was simple, consisting of black pants and shoes and a red shirt. The minimalism here again facilitated the switching between characters. It did not bother me that his attire did not change as his character did. His physical presence told me all I needed to know. I also feel that it gave a sense of him just being a friend who was telling a story, as if he had come over for dinner and was sharing something he had heard somewhere else. It made the entire evening feel more intimate. The sound of the show had a nice juxtaposition between his normal speaking voice and his use of the microphone for the On Air portions while he was portraying Rush Limbaugh. There was never a time when I could not hear or understand him, which was a welcome change from my last theater experience. I have always been fascinated by the power of sound in conjunction with the theater, and this show very simply and elegantly showed just what could be accomplished with minimal equipment. The performance space itself is small and intimate. The actor broke the fourth wall and came out into the audience thus drawing us in and making us part of the show. We became the members of a lecture hall that he was talking about in his scene. That worked very well in this case. I had never been the Woolly Mammoth before and aside from its location I found it to be a warm and inviting place. I would definitely go there again.
I found this show highly entertaining. The atmosphere was comfortable and relaxed which made me enjoy the performance even more. As an audience member I found myself engrossed in the story. This is indeed a rare occurrence for me because when I am in the theater I spend a lot of time watching the crew and checking out the lights. I did not find this happening at this show. For me that is the ultimate sign that the show is thought provoking, interesting and entertaining. I commend Mr. Varon for his performance. It must be difficult to be alone on a stage for approximately two hours every night in a row, and he pulled it off well. I look forward to what both Woolly Mammoth and Charlie Varon will be doing in the future.