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I spent the first half of Velvetville madly scribbling in my program to help jog my memory when I tried to describe what it is that Paul Zaloom does in this solo show. Alas, I’m afraid I’m going to have to work largely from memory.
The same thing happened to me a decade ago, when I saw Zaloom’s My Civilization and laughed so hard I forgot to take notes entirely. This time I was determined, and I did indeed manage to get some descriptive phrases down in the margins, but they’re mostly useless. Things like “the Invisible Man as Nancy Sinatra.” I mean, I remember the moment in which Zaloom conjured that unlikely image, but it’s not going to help a bit in painting a word picture of this guy who paints stage pictures with junk.
I mean that literally. Zaloom works with materials most of us regard as trash. Old stuffed animals and chew toys, rubber flies, hideous velvet paintings, picnic tablecloths, used bubble wrap, and clacking plastic teeth are among the more conventional of his props. Give the man a stack of egg cartons and he’ll show you a high-rise apartment buildinghis own, he swearsatop a fault line in Los Angeles. He’ll even open the top carton to prove that it’s filled with resident aliens.
Zaloom can turn a plastic rat into a passenger on a bus by placing it inside a gas mask. And in his hands, a squeaky toy suitable for a largish dog makes a perfectly persuasive transvestite hooker.
All of this before he sits down at his overhead projector (a tool, let’s agree, that most of us figure we’re using brilliantly if we simply get things right-side up) to explore, say, the wonders of modern dentistry. Not every performer could make a tooth extraction at once excruciating and excruciatingly funny. But Zaloom doesn’t stop therehe also performs plastic surgery.
Now, I should probably mention that there’s a subtext to a manipulation of objects that in other hands might simply be called puppetry. Velvetville is entertainment first, but it’s giddily pointed entertainment. From the moment Zaloom arrives onstage in mismatched pajamas and says he’s going to talk about his dreams, he’s introducing politics into the conversation. His dreams are of carp released into Baltimore’s Druid Hill Park in the 1800s wreaking ecological havoc. He pictures hell as a place where Walt Disney is host, the devil is a purple dinosaur named Barney, the entertainment includes “the Flamenco stylings of Esperanto and Debbie,” and the guests of honor are the Republican conventioneers who nominated Bush the Younger. Rudy Giuliani is impersonated quite plausibly by a squeegee, John Ashcroft by a douche bag, and George W.no, you should discover that for yourself.
My notes indicate that at some point during the 75-minute evening, Zaloom had the whole audience stuck in the belly of an ant, though I won’t pretend to recall how he got us there. Something about flying and crashing, I think, with an unspoken jest about people on the ground looking like ants that became realer than even he seemed to expect.
Which is not to suggest that everything about the evening is so effortless and understated. There’s a quick joke about Monica Lewinsky’s semen-stained dress that’s cheaper than the general run of Zaloom’s humor. But for every misstep, there’s something smart and allusive, delicate and witty. There’s a surprisingly evocative moment, for instance, when a previously shapeless blob of bubble wrap unfurls to become a frozen river: The audience quiets to a hush as Zaloom urges it to listen to the ice crack. When he pops a few of the bubbles, darned if it isn’t every bit as magical as an earlier cracking sound (as Zaloom gets chiropracted and Rolfed) was uproarious.
And it’s in those comparatively delicate moments that the artist in Zaloom takes over from the puppeteer who called himself Beakman for six seasons on TV and answered kids’ science questions. The wackiness doesn’t go awayit just gets leavened with a wistfulness that reminds the adults in the audience that they once knew how to do this kind of animating themselvesthat back when the rest of us were young, a douche bag had personality by virtue of its shape, and colors in a gutter looked like rainbows, not oil slicks.
“I just want to get to some soft velvety place that isn’t screwed up,” Zaloom says at about the evening’s three-quarter mark, though by that time, it’s clear that Velvetville isn’t actually going to get him there until some other night. Which is probably a good thing. If it did, he might not feel the need to play so creatively with all the trash that ends up cluttering the stage. CP