The most interesting thing about watching New-Fangled Fibs: Tall Tales by Paul Strickland is trying to figure out why it doesn’t work.
It’s not like Strickland, who specializes in tall tales, isn’t a talented guy. His show, Ain’t True and Uncle False, which I saw at the Vancouver Fringe in 2017, is one of the highlights of my long theatregoing career.
And, even in New-Fangled Fibs, there are moments of charm. In the story “Chansonaille, Louisiana”, for instance, locals trap “tune bugs” in jars: every bug sings its own note and the goal is to catch a quartet that harmonizes in a major key — not a minor key because that’s unlucky.
So what gives?
Part of the problem with New-Fangled Fibs is that, because it’s an online production, there’s zero sense of audience/performer give-and-take: the warmth that you get from Strickland in a live show feels freeze-dried — and therefor disingenuous: you can see he’s trying to connect through the camera, but he has no idea who he’s talking to, so he’s got to be faking it. And I watched Fibs by myself, so there was no sense of the building excitement you can get in a crowd.
Online pandemic comedy — especially audience-free stand-up, which is essentially what Strickland is doing here — is hard, but I suspect it would work better if he had created a more compelling narrative structure. New-Fangled Fibs is a collection of (mostly) unrelated stories. And a lot of those stories fell flat for me — because they lack emotional resonance and they’re repetitive.
In “The Origin of Rest Areas”, for instance, Winnifred Restarea is credited as the inventor — and George Frederik Waiting is identified as the father of waiting rooms. This repetition is deliberate, of course, but the joke is barely amusing the first time around. Too often, eccentricity alone is the joke: Eddie in “The Story of Eddie Mology” hangs broken vacuum cleaners on his porch wall and refers to them as taxidermy, but who cares? The image is loosely connected to the story’s concerns with time and death, but the image doesn’t resonate.
It’s not until we get to the final tale, “The Story of Will Perjure”, which is an excerpt from Ain’t True and Uncle False, that Strickland gets his groove back. Will, the story’s hero, lost his left hand when he was a boy — simply misplaced it. The hand becomes a symbol of depression, of the frustrated search for meaning. Will imagines his lost body part “blindly feeling around for where it belongs.” And the story’s resolution, which I won’t give away, ties Will back into his trailer-park community, as the hand becomes a symbol for his love for that group of people. It also connects Will to his grandfather and, because of the way it’s been set up, it connects Strickland to his grampa.
That’s the kind of complexity and pay-off I’d been waiting for the whole show.
NEW-FANGLED FIBS: TALL TALES BY PAUL STRICKLAND Presented online by Surrey Civic Theatres. Viewed Friday, June 18. Running online until June 30. Pay-what-you-can tickets.
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