Alternate characters have been in vogue ever since Groucho Marx slapped on a greasepaint mustache as his dancing eyebrows read the lines given to him by S.J. Perelman and George S. Kaufman.
Mainly a male dominated comedy genre, the explorers of slightly altered reality comedy stem from Charlie Chaplin to Pee Wee Herman to Borat. Way beyond “doing a sketch”, these are actors who happen to be comedians, and who bring to life their Frankenstein-esque characters, and who then completely inhabit the character, to the point where one actually forgets which direction comedy gravity is initially coming from. Few woman comedy performers even attempt the genre of character bending, perhaps dating back to when they were first warned off during the Shakespeare era as even the female characters were then played by male actors. Lily Tomlin, famous for her bevvy of disparate comedic characters, from little girl Edith Ann to one-ringy-dingy telephone operator Ernestine, always let us know she knew where the stage exit was. And in this era of doing a character “based on yourself” (i.e., your so-called “real life”), such as Amy Schumer in Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck, as well as Maria Bamford’s on-stage stand-up character, self-deprecation for women by way of self-satire has come to mean empowerment for women performers; now more than ever.
Samantha Jane, an Uta Hagen and UCB Improv in New York trained actress and improv artist, in her new alt-Euro-trash-disco-queen character, Gën, takes us underground into a basement club smack in the middle of the worst part of Berlin. And, yet, all I had to do was find parking on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood to experience it, which by the way, was only slightly easier than climbing over the Berlin Wall circa 1962.
I realized I was witnessing nothing short of a sample of a comedic cultural phenomenon, set against the politically apocalyptic times we live in.
At the packed house at The Pack Theatre in The Complex, the show opens with european disco power pop, led down the rabbit hole by a dude base player and a keyboard guy, as “played by” Brandon Beck and Michael Chap Resnik. Sam as “Gën” enters and is speaking with an Eastern European accent so thick, you might think you accidentally walked into Sam’s Hofbrau. Her character tells us the most important information up front: where the bathrooms are. She’s from Slovenia and in fact, references our main and perhaps only modern day Slovanian reference point.
“The first lady of entire country usa is from Slovenia. I am here to become first lady of pop music.”
She reminds us how she only just learned about an American tradition they don’t have in her country. Halloween. Which is interesting because the entire show we’re about to experience is one big spookily weird candy to the audience party; and to point out, to my astonishment, the audience present absolutely ate it up like they were enthusiastic terminally ill diabetics. Many costume changes for Gën between the guest acts and that becomes a big part of the expectation. What’s she gonna wear next. She and her backup dancers/singers (Elisa Ellis and Catherine Durickas) wear costumes entirely consumed and made up from the most profane illicit illegal iconic materials: plastic straws. The backup chicks wearing stupid sparkle cat ears, alternating pink top/black top/black shorts/pink shorts. They sing a song with the chorus “If You Are Fast”.
A “Fishnet accident”
There’s lots of dancing and disco lights and interesting guest acts. J. Elija Cho who sings a song about “booty earthquakes”, a “song about Adam Levine, in the style of Adam Levine, about Adam Levine.” Song’s chorus is a list of places where he had sex in the apartment. “You don’t want to be my roommate cause I’ll have sex on everything in the apartment”; everyone clapped to chorus. Gën returns, costume change, wearing a Halloween skull around her waist “trick or treat skirt…mostly trick”; then sends her pretty minions like flying monkeys out into the audience to feed us with sweet snacks. (My delight of awkwardly trying to pull off a candy attached to one of their skirts was the closest I’ve come to sexual intercourse since the iPhone 7 was launched.) Next act was introduced as “Group of ladies and yet still funny” The Baegency (not a typo), who were three actresses doing a sketch about being home-bound, where they awkwardly go into a rap about being “a subscriber”, meaning they/she orders all kinds of stuff that gets delivered, so they never have to leave the house. Very awkward comedy timing in this particularly seemingly unrehearsed sketch as if they weren’t sure of their lines or stage cues. However. The “Gënius” of It’s Gën’s Bootie Earthquake Show is that just for the briefest moments, you do think maybe this is all part of a put on, so who am I to make audience judgements. Besides, I was still internally basking in the fact that I found a decent parking space.
We get a “message” from backstage than Gën was caught up in a “fishnet accident”, so she’s gonna intro the next act. “The Good Boy of Comedy”, Comedian Eric Jennifer (Hal Rudnick). “Good job, what’s your name” is his repeated over and over again until your eyes bleed catchphrase. Asks if there are any licensed drivers in the audience. “Make some noise if you are over 40 and still live at home” “Make some noise if you have to clip your mom’s toenails.” This guy is incredibly annoying and it wasn’t until I remembered what show I was watching that I started to enjoy myself as an audience member again, catching up with the rest of the crowd roaring with knowing inside laughter.
It’s Gën’s Bootie Earthquake Show is for the Informed Insider! Don’t dismay! We’re all stupid at first!
But my favorite part of the show was sheer theatrical brilliance. Gën on video herself, supposedly from backstage, but we all know secretly prerecorded, who tells us two important things. One, “there’s a scary man from ISIS” AND then introduces “El Hefe” which is a double act of her and Aaron Abeyta, harmonizing a very touching and funny duet with throwaway reveal lines: “You’re the only one in my life that’s a bigger mess than me.” and “Everyone would see how much I suck were it not for you.”
Gën and girls come back. Now the girls are wearing see through tops. Brings out DJ Pigeon head, a guy in a giant pigeon head. Now song about earthquakes, like when the earth is haunted. Heavy house beat. Bootie Earthquake.
Like dining in a bad restaurant that doubles as an S&M club, Everything’s a gag.
Overall, with the handful of squeaky noises coming from clear live mistakes, Gën’s Bootie Earthquake Show is a real trip down pastiche lane, genre bending, sexually provocative, and mostly amusing piss-take on not just an arcane branch of European entertainment tradition, but in fact an unwitting satire on American culture, because after all, it is we who get the inside joke and what frightens us the most is the premise may be born outta Samantha Jane’s imaginative head, but the punchline is ultimately, us.
Marcelina Chavira made the costumes, Ben Kuershner helped produce and this guy did set decoration: Jeremy Wojchihosky.
I got a chance to catch up with theatrically trained creator of Gën, Samantha Jane, and threw her a few questions:
LARF: What and/or who is the inspiration for the Gën character?
SAMANTHA: Gën was born after I went wig shopping with my friend Meaghan in Florida around 2009. I tried on that same black asymmetrical wig (yes it is very old and starting to go bald now) and she said “you look like one of those trendy Slavic girls” and I instantly did the voice. On the way home I was pestering my mother in the car by doing endless bits in character, which I’ve done my whole life, and I came up with the song title “if you want to dance dance, and if you want to don’t don’t. Because it’s like America freedom you know?” When I got back to nyc, my wheels began turning and she began to have a life of her own. She was also partly based on these two gay polish boys I worked with at the now defunct Williamsburg Cafe in Brooklyn. They wore a ton of neon and one day showed me a million blurry photos of Britney Spears bc they saw her somewhere and were the most excited to barely see person in a crowd that I have ever seen two people be. Their infectiously happy energy and love for New York City and America was a big inspiration.
LARF: How much of the character is a deep reflection of yourself and how much is opposite of you?
SAMANTHA: I sometimes say that Gën is like Borat, except I don’t hate people. I never want to make anyone else uncomfortable or make anyone else the butt of my jokes, it’s always me. She’s always Gënuinely happy, like the part of me that would dress up in glitter and dance around like a pop star when I was a little girl – no ego, no complicated sex stuff, just pure fun. I’m much more jaded, bitter and sarcastic in my real life, but she’s the deep inner child inside me that’s still endlessly hopefully and just wants to play. Beyoncé has her onstage alter ego Sasha Fierce, and Gën is like my Sasha Farts. When I put her on, the most pure and funny parts of me come out to play.
LARF: Is the show a straight pastiche of the “Eurovision” Gënre or a satire of it?
SAMANTHA: I definitely watched a bunch of Slovenia’s best-of in Eurovision as inspiration for the show. Also Aqua. I showed my collaborators as well, but then we took the idea and ran with it and made it our own. It’s more of an inspiration point than something we’re trying to satire in a real way.
LARF: How does Gën and her backup dancer/singers’ costumes and “Playboy bunny/1960’s airline stewardess” free sexuality square with the #MeToo Movement?
SAMANTHA: Not totally sure exactly what this is asking? But, one thing I talked about with someone is that Gën wearing ‘Bootie shorts’ and talking about booties all the time is like 10 year old girls grinding to Miley Cyrus- it’s about the fun of it, not about sex or “the male gaze.” Sometimes girls want to wear tight pink sexy things because it’s fun. We used to blame girls for being sexy “Lolitas” but hopefully now we are woke enough to realize that Nabokov was just a very eloquent pedophile. Little girls aren’t being sexy to attract actually sexual attention, it’s because sexy clothes and bodies can be fun. It’s playing dress up. Drag queens have always understood this, and more men are finally getting it now that Gënderbending/Gënderqueer stuff is becoming more normalized. Wearing sexy things isn’t always about “sex.” Are we supposed to wear full nun habits or burkas to make sure men aren’t tempted by our bodies?? I hope as a culture we’re moving past shaming women for “dressing like they’re asking for it” and towards holding men accountable for their thoughts and actions.
LARF: How much of what the audience sees a purposeful “bad” or awkward performance (including the acts) and how much is straightforward pure entertainment? You know what I mean? By “bad” I mean antiquated, out of place within (or actually without) the “times” we live in. Nothing related to talent or executions.
SAMANTHA: There’s definitely a bit of “bad on purpose” in my show. Gën is an amateur, poor pop star doing what she can on a shoestring budget with no help. I also embrace a lot of improv in my shows, so having it be ‘imperfect’ aesthetically can help that blend in seamlessly. A lot of my bits with my dancers are written backstage. But some things, like not being able to hear my DJ’s lines through the pigeon mask he chose to wear and we never rehearsed in, are completely unplanned bits of chaos that become beautiful gifts if you can roll with them. One person told me that was their favorite “bit” of the show, which is amazing because it was absolutely not written or planned but they couldn’t even tell. I often try to look at Comedy though the philosophy of wabi sabi, where they gild the cracks in pottery: sometimes the imperfections are what make something even more beautiful and unique. If you can fully integrate “mistakes” into what you do, then do you ever really make them? I’m cheating the system hahaha.
Gën’s Bootie Earthquake Show has its own built in audience of weirdos and know it alls and sitting in the back of the theatre, typing notes and remembering observations, I realized I was witnessing nothing short of a sample of a comedic cultural phenomenon, set against the politically apocalyptic times we live in.
For Larf Magazine,
This is Steven Alan Green, Oct. 21, 2019