Arturo Brachettibills himself as the world's fastest quick-change artist. And who am I to argue with this title now that I've seen his work for the second time? The current show, which leads off a larger North American tour, is a more polished version of the extravaganza that he began creating at Montreal's Just For Laughs comedy festival in the summer of 1999.
At that time Brachetti and his creative team struggled with the challenge of devising an evening's worth of entertainment that rises or falls on the fascination the audience has with quick-change artistry altogether. As a way of framing his massive wardrobe variations, Brachetti took us on a guided tour of his life as a way of explaining who he had been and how he had become the entertainer that he is. (Along the way he interspersed magic tricks and shadow puppetry.)
In Montreal, where he spoke mostly in French and managed a few asides in English, the audience was enchanted. Brachetti came across as a clown hell-bent on converting us all to his passion for transforming himself into whatever and whomever he fancied. Although lumbered by overstuffed production values and excessive running time, the show still drew large houses and extended its run several times before moving on to Europe.
Three years later and with a bulging press book to reinforce the value in sticking with what you know in your heart to be right, Brachetti and company are in Toronto to begin their assault on the Anglo audience. I wish that I could repeat the enthusiasm I felt and broadcast back in '99, but the performance that I saw last week, in spite of its greater clarity and smoother integration of disparate elements, had little of the earlier fun and reckless freedom.
Perhaps this kind of entertainment is not ideal for a second helping. Perhaps the quick-change world, however staggering in its mystery, is a one-time wonder that fails to reveal much beneath the surface. And perhaps the show is now too carefully presented, losing the fierce drive that made my introduction to Brachetti a totally different experience. In '99, you could absolutely feel the audience will him on to the next breathtaking transformation. In Toronto, to an audience no less impressed and intrigued, there was not a moment's doubt that he would be in and out of characters without risk of missing a beat.
As for the show's concept, the spoken patter ranges between personal history and variety show humour from an era long gone. Brachetti's high-minded notions of how to translate ideas and staging are in conflict with his low-level sense of comedy. He is not at ease enough with English to throw away lines that his writers, mistakenly, imagine anyone would find funny. There is a decidedly musty scent about the concept and the execution throughout, in fact, and the artistry of the star is badly compromised by the poor taste and equally poor judgment of those who get billing as writers, director and artistic director.
Of the material itself, a parody of a Hollywood western could be trimmed, if not cut out entirely, and two transitional items -- one in which he uses a doughnut-shaped piece of felt to become too many headpieces for us to enjoy and another in which he proves his mastery of shadow puppetry long after we accept his mastery of shadow puppetry -- slow down whatever momentum he creates.
A tribute to Hollywood celebrities is the evening's high point. The ending, in which Brachetti transforms himself into Esther Williams, is a fitting climax since it combines lavish costuming, a genuine affection for the subject and a cheeky punch line. (Among film titles projected on the set in this 'act', is Singin' in the Rain, though the first word is listed as Singing. How could the designer have made such a mistake?)
The closing sequence is a tribute to Federico Fellini. Brachetti's awe of the legendary filmmaker is evident and wholly touching in its sincerity. But more than the rather bizarre shift in tone that the piece creates, is the absence of information that allows the audience to enter the tribute because there are no spoken or projected references to the characters and the films that serve as the root inspiration for everything that Brachetti dreams of being and, in turn, dreams of inspiring in others. It is another opportunity that the writers and directors have failed to develop as they should have done.
Arturo Brachetti can be seen elsewhere in North America in the coming months: Houston (November 5-10); Tempe (November 12-17); St. Paul (December 10-15); Dallas (December 17-29); Denver (January 7-12); Detroit (January 14-February 2); Philadelphia (February 11-16); Boston (February 18-March 2). New York dates are still to be confirmed.
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