Post image for Exhibit Review: SOCIALLY DISTANT THEATER: THE SOLO SHOW AS SEEN BY HIRSCHFELD (The Al Hirschfeld Foundation)

by Tony Frankel on May 13, 2020

in Extras,Theater-New York


How many of us theater addicts have gone to a solo show only to find some woman squealing about her private parts (or man for that matter), and you think “Never Again.” Then you catch Whoopi Goldberg or Robert Morse or Julie Harris or John Leguizamo or the great Elaine Stritch and suddenly there’s no better art form. And who is better creating portraits of artists at work than Al Hirschfeld? His testament to the solo show is currently given an astounding exhibit in what will be the first of many exhibits to come courtesy of the Al Hirschfeld Foundation.

The solo show — or in today’s lingo “one-person show” (just in case you were unsure of which animal you were buying a ticket to see) — has been around since cavemen told stories of how to hunt, kill, prepare, and eat a mastodon. Then we went through a period of Chautauqua Tent Show Lectures with the likes of William Jennings Bryant or some larger-than-life orator telling of politics, theater, or a hunt in the jungle. But as information began to disseminate faster than we can take it in, the best solo shows find a common universality in their stories. (The worst, of course, are those that tell of the time Dad locked them in the glovebox, expecting the story itself to win the day.)

The solo theater of Hirschfeld’s time, as the intro notes to the exhibit state, is a supreme test of assurance and ability; of magnetism and charisma. The format is both seductive and frightening; there’s no one to play against, to lean on, to share the criticism. But for an actor, if there is no one else to take the blame, there is also no one to share the credit with as well.

Many solo shows are either biographical or autobiographical. Yet if they are alone on stage, oftentimes the individual performer must create a cast of characters to bring their monodrama to life. We might forget that in the Belle of Amherst, Julie Harris was called on to create 15 characters. In Patrick Stewart’s Christmas Carol he performed even more. Whoopi Goldberg seemed to create a city full of personalities. And this is where Hirschfeld’s genius shines: in many of the portraits, you get a glimpse into the magnetism of each performer that made them stars. Each portrait has well-written info, with a link to other portraits of the performer. In addition to showing the artwork in detail as it has never been seen before, throughout the exhibition are links to videos of parts or the whole of some of these solo performances. You can see Henry Fonda as Clarence Darrow, Julie Harris as Emily Dickinson, or Robert Morse as Truman Capote. Or you can see Eric Bogosian, Whoopi Goldberg, and John Leguizamo channel a seemingly endless parade of characters from their solo shows. It turns out being alone has never been so interesting. And, naturally, all roads lead to a gift shop.

In many ways they are all caricatures in the sense they have exaggerated elements of their subject to bring a whole life or simply a story to life. So in essence, Hirschfeld, the ultimate solo artist, is the ideal portraitist for this unique form of theater. As these times currently require us to all to be solo acts, you are invited into the world of the solo performance as seen through the eyes and pen of Hirschfeld.

Then go behind the lines of Hirschfeld‘s art with the delightful Hirschfeld Century Podcast, nominated as “Best NYC podcast” by the 2020 Apple Awards. A special episode dedicated to the works featured in “Socially Distant Theater” will be available starting May 20, 2020.

all images © The Al Hirschfeld Foundation

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