City Paper is not for tourists
Atlas Performing Arts Center: Lab II
Friday, July 18, 9:30 p.m. Saturday, July 19, 6:45 p.m. Friday, July 25, 9:45 p.m.
They say: What’s Armageddon gonna look like? Pandemic, natural cataclysm, nuclear apocalypse, extraterrestrial catastrophe? The answers come from a Street Prophet and a 5-Star General – among others – on Ron Litman’s zany, musical journey to the end of the world.
Chris’ Take: Ron Litman, a sixty-something self-described “artist-provocateur” who comes off like an amalgam of Lou Reed and “Weird Al” Yankovic, is coming home.
Not home to DC, where he grew up and where he returned after 35 years away in 2009. The tireless raconteur told that story in his first Capital Fringe show, 2012’s surprise hit DC Trash. Performed with his longtime collaborator Tom Pile, it was a acidic musical indictment of gentrification and income inequality as seen through the eyes of a man whose parents owned a deli on Wisconsin Ave. NW, who lived through the 1968 riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., who left for New York City and the theatre and then Los Angeles and the movies, and who eventually came back to earn his living behind the wheel of a garbage truck. (He decided to enter the festival in January 2012, when he was called to Fort Fringe to haul away the gaudy marble fountain that was one of the Fort’s key architectural features in its 58-year former life as Ristorante A.V. Italiano.)
This time, he’s coming home to where his career a solo artist started: At The End. The energetic, unapologetically left-wing song parodist began his solo performance career at the Colonades Theatre in New York City 37 years ago with a show called On a Clear Day You Can See Armageddon.
“It was a series of vignettes,” he told me on the Fringe & PurgeCast in 2012. “One of them was Henry Kissinger coming out and saying the one award he still covets is a Grammy Award. He then transformed in front of the audience into Jeane Kirkpatrick. I would take off the jacket and underneath I was Jeane Kirkpatrick, and I would sing.”
That bit isn’t in his third Capital Fringe show, the invigorating Waiting for Armageddon. (As with the others, composer Pile provides both live and prerecorded accompaniment on guitar, piano, and a MacBook Pro orchestra of sampled instruments. He sings backup, too.) But his arresting new show would seem to share more with his seminal work than just a tough-to-spell word from the Bible. Instead of Kissinger, we get Buck Armstrong, a kinky Air Force General who picks up a red phone to recite nuclear launch codes as a prank. “It was eventually going to happen anyway,” he shrugs when he calls back to abort the launch and nobody answers. “We’ve got about 15 minutes. I suggest you turn to the person next to you and fuck.”
If it isn’t an unhinged guy with his finger on the button that kills us, it’ll be some virulent illness we’d thought we’d eradicated, or else one we haven’t even heard of yet, Litman spits in the rapid-fire monologue that opens his hour-long riff on the brief, soon-to-be-corrected anomaly that is human life on Earth. Or maybe it’ll be another asteroid strike — the 50-meter rock that missed our fragile planet by 17,000 miles in Feb. 2013 was a frighteningly close shave, astronomically speaking.
Whereas DC Trash was equal parts agitprop and sociology, and its 2013 follow-up, Fish Outta Water, was a personal history of his doomed attempt to fit in in the Midwest, Waiting for Armageddon is an indulgence of Litman’s neurosis. But it’s an inviting indulgence. The songs he and Pile have come up with this time are catchier than in the past, and seemingly less indebted to the melodies of familiar old hits.
The best of them, the white-funk number “Are You a Chimp?” (I’m guessing at its title based on its refrain), wonders why humankind must behave like the violent Pan troglodytes — chimpanzees — rather than the free-loving, matriarchal Pan paniscus — bonobos — who share just as much of our DNA as those shit-throwing chimps do but express themselves through an unusual quantity and variety of sexual activity instead of, you know, murder. The song that bookends the show, “The End Is Near,” is a quieter thing tinkled on Pile’s piano, a whimper from the man who just extorted us to bang. Still another song — I didn’t catch the title — finds Litman blowing a harmonica and doing a vocal impression of Bob Dylan, as if to nod to another sixty-something Jew who keeps getting up in front of people to sing because he needs to.
The Sunday afternoon show I attended coincided with the World Cup Final. I wish that were the reason the audience appeared to be made up of Litman’s contemporaries and people even older, just like, well, a typical Sunday afternoon at any theatre. Just because we’re all on our way out doesn’t mean the younger folks couldn’t take some inspiration from this wildly literate, imaginative crank who can’t be bothered to grow old gracefully.
See it if: You like the idea that the guy picking up your trash might secretly be a sharp-witted satirist and songwriter.
Skip it if: You don’t trust anyone over 30. Or if you can’t forgive Litman for misattributing the line he quotes from ALIENS; it’s Private Hudson (Bill Paxton) who howls, “We’re on an express elevator to hell, going down!”, not Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn). Look, you asked.
Photo by Paul Gillis.