Edgar Oliver's storytelling performances move in stages. First, they are hilarious. That voice! Oliver speaks in exaggerated loops and dives—think Family Guy’s Stewie doing a Boris Karloff impersonation. Gesturing slightly in a faint spotlight, Oliver caresses each syllable, emphasizing it and then sliding it all the way down the octave. “When I was in the sixth grade, my voice changed,” he tells us, and we giggle. But Oliver isn't doing a bit. A childhood in Savannah, Georgia and then decades as a downtown habitué have somehow burnished his voice into a baroque instrument that only plays largo. As Oliver relates a series of small stories from his life (standing disconsolate on Delancey Street, overwhelmed by a playdate when he was small) the strange voice becomes familiar. By the end of Attorney Street, all its initial weirdness has evaporated, leaving only a sense of melancholy behind.
Oliver has made several of these autobiographical solo pieces; for those who have followed them, Attorney Street is where Oliver moved after living in his (famous to a few) 10th Street rooming house. Oliver and his director Randy Sharp keep things to a bare minimum, just the pitch-black of the Axis basement space and Oliver's mannered gestures. The piece is a brief anthology of farewells, to a bakery in an earlier New York, to a lost poem, to a father he never knew. There's a feeling of suspended time: Oliver sometimes seems like a time-traveler buffeted by our too-noisy world. Trying to “strike out across the unknown heart of Queens,” he dodges onto traffic islands and collapses in a kind of panic. The threnodic essence in all the stories, though, is something that never ages—desire. Oliver finds almost every man alive beautiful, and that appreciation sits at the heart of all his lyrical reminiscence. He can remember exactly the way sun touched a sweet-faced boy 45 years ago. In a repeated, heartbreaking refrain, Oliver says that in his mind, he too is “as lithe and handsome as any golden man.” Don’t let this sadness keep you away. For those of us watching, Oliver's sorrow is always sweet.
Axis Theater (Off Broadway). Written and performed by Edgar Oliver. Directed by Randy Sharp. Running time: 1hr 5mins. No intermission. Through Nov 19. Click here for full ticket and venue information.
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