Dr. Professor Neal Portenza’s Catchy Show Title
Dr. Professor Neal Portenza @ Tuxedo Cat – Mayall Room
8:30pm, Sat 28 Feb 2015
It’s best to say that I was perplexed during my prior Portenza encounter, but – on the occasions that I’d seen him (and Josh Ladgrove, his “normal” personae) at various TuxCat events) – I’d since developed a real affection for the character… and I figured that his bizarre clowning and audience interaction would be another good bit of Fringe exposure for my Significant Other.
Of course, I’d failed to take into account that this was Clipsal Weekend… and, as such, the general rabble of people in the city this Saturday night was heavily skewed in the “pissed bogan” demographic, and some even managed to find TuxCat (though, thankfully, they had a “no race shirts” policy in place). And four fucking morons wound up in the audience for this performance.
But that wasn’t evident at first. We’d entered the Mayall Room to be greeted by Maria, Neal’s grandmother, whose high-pitched voice and heavy accent left many wondering whether she was actually speaking english as she queried the audience. Many quizzical looks were passed around; just by the door, a group of men started talking amongst themselves: “Is this guy alright? I think he’s fucking mental.”
Neal whips off the headscarf that signifies Maria, and engages in a bit of Neal-ish banter with the audience: he’s silly, he’s abrupt, and he’s pointed. The chatter by the door continues; I look around and see four heavy-set men, all double-fisting their drinks, in conversation.
Josh drops out of character and asks if everything’s OK; the men try to come up with a witty riposte, but their words are heavy and slurred. Josh points out that this is a weird comedy show, and maybe that’s not going to be their sort of thing? They’re sullen in response. One final check, and Neal is back.
But the men keep talking, and it’s obvious that the murmurs are annoying the audience – and Josh. He offers them their money back if they want to leave; three of the men sink back into their seat, but one – who proudly announces himself as Osama – starts backchatting.
And things go south very quickly.
It becomes a sad battle of the sodden witless versus the match-fit razor-sharp wit; Osama is hopelessly outclassed, but too drunk to realise the battle he’s losing, so it’s not long before there’s threats of violence. Nathan the tech pipes up to try and diffuse the situation. Claims and counter-claims, chest-beating machismo, and an awful tension builds in the room before a tenuous cease-fire is reluctantly agreed to.
There was more of the show – Stavros turns up and goads Osama and Friends, there’s a rubber chicken singalong, and – for the finale – selected members of the audience were invited to thwack plungers on Neal’s chest before the audience played a game of glow-stick coits.
But, to be honest, the air never cleared from the altercation in the middle of the show; the laughs were there, but they were tempered, measured.
Ladgrove apologised profusely during the show, and even offered everyone (apart from Osama and his three meathead buddies) free tickets to see Portenza again. I laughed it off – as uncomfortable as the show was because of their presence, it was still part of the Fringe experience for me – by my Signifiant Other was furious at their mangling of the show. “You should take him up on seeing it again,” she said to me; I’d already resolved to do just that.
8:30pm, Sat 14 Mar 2015
Josh caught me at the door as I flashed my ticket – “You didn’t have to pay again,” he said, but I just laughed him off. That’s not how my Fringe-going works: if you’re putting on a show and asking for money, you’ll get money.
The audience this evening was almost the polar opposite of the first show: there were (at least) four kids in the audience, which took Neal by surprise (Josh dropped character to check if their parents were okay with the likely profanity and adult themes). Sure, the fourteen year old girl in the front row was brave, as was the seventeen year old boy (who wound up helping Neal and family onstage a bit), but the nine and twelve year old that sat with their parents were in for a weird, abstract ride.
Much of the material from that first show was still here – Stavros the doof-doof loving Greek and Maria still showed up, but so did Vanessa, the ultra-patriotic young girl singing for her country. We got to singalong again with the rubber chickens, play glow-stick coits (after I nearly broke Josh’s ribs trying to attach the first plunger), and there was some leaf-blower weirdness. Nathan the tech came in for some stick, and I even got explicitly called out as the Festival Freak, which was nice.
It’s not really amazing that the show was much more enjoyable without a bunch of drunk fuckwits trampling over the enjoyment of others; but it was pretty amazing just how much more fun it was. With an audience that spanned many decades, everyone laughed themselves silly at this weird, abstract, physical performance… and I was convinced that Dr. Professor Neal Portenza is a clown of the very highest order.