Patsy from Shunk Street is the kind of gal that most native Philadelphians know and love. Parochial yet endearing, she sits on her stoop, ponders the world outside her rowhouse and tells it like it is.
No subject is too elaborate, no topic taboo.
And at the end of the day, good old Patsy, just like her name suggests, gets the short end of the stick.
At least she used to.
Since debuting some five years ago in 1812 Productions’ original current events satire This Is The Week That Is, Patsy has become quite the media darling. She’s been asked to speak at conventions and conferences. She’s been invited to host a recurring segment on local radio and continues to perform live to thousands each December when 1812 rolls out its hit sketch-based comedy.
“She’s very in-demand,” said Jen Childs, the company’s founder, show’s writer/director and the character’s creator/portrayer.
Patsy is one of the few constants in This Is The Week That Is, which has evolved with its subject matter from year to year and will continue to evolve each day of its current five-week run at the 300-seat Plays and Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey St. in Rittenhouse Square. The show concludes on Dec. 31.
“I always say it’s the Carol Burnett Show meets The Daily Show,” said Childs, a University of the Arts alumna and veteran regional actress who in 1997 co-conceived what is now billed as the nation’s lone professional theater company dedicated exclusively to comedy.
A BIT OF THIS, A BIT OF THAT
“You have a variety show in the first act, followed by a news broadcast in the second act that changes on a nightly basis,” explained Don Montrey, who teamed with Childs to pen the original script and who anchors the farcical news program in Act II. “It’s all topical humor, based on what’s going on in the world right now.”
That means cast members will rag on usually dry topics like the Republican presidential primary campaign, the withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Iraq and how Congress’ so-called “super committee” failed to come up with a plan to reduce the nation’s budget deficit.
And whenever more philandering allegations surface against one-time GOP presidential front-runner Herman Cain, audiences can count on a few new gags being added to This Is The Week.
“It’s hard, (but) in a different way than other shows, because it changes every day. You’ve got to be able to change and adapt,” Childs said hours before the show’s final preview performance on Nov. 29.
One day earlier, an Atlanta-area businesswoman, Ginger White, had revealed publicly that she had been involved romantically with the married Cain for 13 years. Cain quickly denied the claims and on Saturday he suspended his campaign.
“Already, we’ve added a line about Ginger White. To people who come in (to see the show), it’s going to be very fresh because it just happened yesterday,” Childs said.
Ironically, while the redundancy and immediacy of the contemporary news industry provide satirists like Childs, Montrey and their fellow cast members with plenty of material to spoof, it also challenges them to assess and understand their audiences more deeply.
SOURCES ARE EVERYWHERE
When the company produced the inaugural This Is The Week in 2006, the number of news sources available to the public was relatively small compared to today — when consumers have all the conventional sources plus an ever-increasing volume of Internet blogs from which to choose.
“One of the things we’ve found most difficult is the number of ways that people get their news,” Childs said.
By comparison, back in the early days of TV, news sources could be counted on one hand.
“People watched Walter Cronkite and they all got the same news,” Childs said.
Not coincidentally, the 1812 stage production gets its name at least indirectly from Cronkite’s famous CBS Evening News sign-off phrase, “That’s the way it is.” Similarly, in the early 1960s, a British TV news-satire hosted by David Frost used the title, That Was The Week That Was. Frost hosted an American version with the same title on NBC-TV later that decade.
But aside from that homage to the past, it’s the here and now that most concern the folks at 1812. With the economic recession dragging on, people are fed up with reports about unemployment and the high price of gasoline. So are the characters in This Is The Week.
“The theme this year is escapism fantasy,” Childs said. “The news is so bad, we want to escape it. For instance, (in one skit) we try to escape into a Broadway musical because they always have a happy ending. And in another, we try to escape into a Humphrey Bogart movie because he always gets the bad guys.”
DOING DOUBLE DUTY
This year’s cast is a mix of company regulars and new faces, including Scott Greer, Dave Jadico, Aimé Kelly, Reuben Mitchell, Greg Nix, Thomas E. Shotkin and Tabitha Allen, along with Childs and Montrey.
Montrey is the chief writer of the news “broadcast” in Act II, while all cast members are considered co-writers. Allen is credited as musical director.
Like much comedy, a thread of serious truth underlies the succession of wind-ups, wisecracks and one-liners. Cast members see themselves somewhat as a creative arm of the “Occupy” movement.
“(Occupy demonstrators) feel the system is broken and that the people who need to be held responsible are not being held responsible and, because of that, (people) are being made to suffer for others’ actions,” Montrey said.
By ridiculing deserving public figures, the show can highlight some of the cracks that its creators see in the system. “For us, humor is our way of protesting, our way of commenting and making our voices heard,” Montrey said.
Laughter has great healing properties as well.
“Humor is a great unifier. There are people who may not agree with our political viewpoints who still come to the show and have a good time with it,” Montrey said.
“The laughs that we get for the comedy in this show are different than those for any other show we do,” Childs said. “They’re deep belly laughs.
“We talk about stuff that’s not always funny, but I think what we find every year is (the mentality), ‘We’re in this together. We’re a community.’” ••
“This Is The Week That Is” continues with 20 performances through Dec. 31. Show days and times vary. Tickets range from $20 to $36 and are available via 215-592-9560 or www.1812productions.org. Visit the Web site for information.