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Review: ‘Dad Jokes: A Stand Up Tragedy by Emily Hall’ at Annex Theater

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Dad jokes are an odd construct. As likely to make you cringe as to laugh, they are both funny and not funny at the same time. You may laugh at a dad joke, but you almost feel bad that you did. On Sunday, I attended Dad Jokes: A Stand Up Tragedy by Emily Hall at the Annex Theater (“Annex”). Going in, I wasn’t sure what to expect; I mean, what the hell is “stand up tragedy?” By the end of the excellent one-woman show, however, the name of the piece made sense to me on several levels.

Radical, Experimental Performance. That’s what you’re in for when you see a show at Annex. For nearly a decade, Annex has been producing daring, experimental theater and interdisciplinary performances in traditional and nontraditional theater spaces in Baltimore. In doing so, Annex has helped foster an inclusive community that celebrates the bizarre and unusual, encourages creative risk-taking, and has a vision for the future that is bold, exceptional, and attainable (go read about/donate to Le Mondo!).

One of the ways Annex helps get courageous new art to the public is through its Knee Play Series. Each year, the theater commissions a series of short-run, solo-driven performance pieces. Annex provides a supportive environment for the commissioned company members and collaborators to dive into their wellsprings of creativity and craft singular works of art. These works are interspersed throughout Annex’s full-length feature production season. Emily Hall’s Dad Jokes is the second of the four Knee Play pieces in the current Annex season.

I’ve seen a number of dual-story one person shows. These are the kind of performances where the actor will present one story or perspective in a formal manner – say, at a podium with a microphone – and a second story or perspective in a series of casual (often funny or crazy) asides to the audience. The juxtaposition of the dual stories can be very powerful. Such is the case with Emily Hall’s Dad Jokes.

Rather than taking place in Annex’s mainstage space, Dad Jokes was held on the third floor, up around 9,000 stairs, in a room that was decked out with a bunch of four-person folding card tables. They gave it the feel of a sketchy comedy club or an open mike night. Each table had the obligatory candle and a plate of snacks – pretzels and little donuts with Swedish fish stuck in the holes. Bloody Marys and Mimosas were available if you were willing to approach the scowling girl (a hilariously inhospitable Danni Tsuboi) who was staffing the beach cooler. At the front of the room, there was a microphone, a music stand/podium, and a small table.

The ‘formal’ half of Dad Jokes began with Hall welcoming us all to her father’s funeral, which she then presided over. Wow. I don’t think anyone was expecting that. In the ‘casual’ half of the performance, Hall described many of the ways that her father dying when she was five impacted her life. Who would have thought the funeral would be the light half of the show?

The performance was nowhere near as grim as this set up implies. Thanks to Hall’s comedic timing and delightfully deadpan presentation, the show was balanced. It told a sad story, but overall, it was actually quite funny.

The funeral was divided into all the normal sections: a prayer, some bible passages, standing ups, sitting downs, words from loved ones, the limbo, a sing-along, communion, and a reception. For all the gut-punches, like how little-girl Hall didn’t want pets because it made no sense to love something when it was just going to die, there were surprising, funny bits that would help you shake it off. Like how Hall picked a random audience member to come forward and eulogize her dad since “you knew him as well as I did.”

I don’t want to give other specific examples about Dad Jokes because of spoilers. It’s true that you won’t have another chance to see it in this season’s Knee Play Series at the Annex Theater – the nature of the series is that the performance pieces have very short runs – but I am hopeful that you will get another opportunity to see Emily Hall’s show. I don’t know what her plans are for it, but I’d keep an eye out for it in festivals and such. I know theater is ephemeral, but Dad Jokes is too good to not have another run someplace, some time.

You will have a chance, however, to see the next installments in the Knee Play Series: Annex Theater Company members Evan Moritz and Lucia Treasure will each be presenting performance pieces at Annex from May 4 to May 6, 2017.

Running Time: Approximately 50 minutes, without an intermission.

Dad Jokes: A Stand Up Tragedy by Emily Hall played March 10 through March 12, 2017, at The Annex Theater, 219 Park Avenue in Baltimore, MD. For other shows at The Annex go online.

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