by: JK Clarke
When we first experience Matthew-Lee Erlbach in the Prologue as annoying entrepreneur/ pyramid scheme salesman Richard Falcon — who doesn’t mind his opportunity being called a pyramid scheme “because the pyramids are some of the greatest structures ever built. In the history of humanity” — it’s easy to to think, “oh no, are we going to be listening to this guy all night?” Falcon is a weasley slickster right out of a ShamWow infomercial. But just as soon as we lose ourselves in the spiel and find ourselves chuckling at Falcon, our symbolic MC of the evening, he’s done and we’re introduced to the first of a panoply of Americans “living the dream.” Erlbach is suddenly Casey, an awkward 17 year-old from Havre, Montana, talking to a YouTube audience about his daily life and his awkward first dates with a possible new girlfriend. But Casey is intercut with Joshua, a young barista at a Starbucks in Detroit, chatting up a customer, all the while calling out the drinks as he makes them. And so on.
Each time Erlbach comes out as one of his 12 different characters following Falcon’s Prologue, we think, “he can’t possibly do this one as well as the last.” But he does, and brilliantly. Whether he’s Oscar, a Mexican field worker in Arizona with a remarkable knack for drumming, or Johanna, a seven year old Mennonite girl immersed in prayer, Erlbach is utterly convincing. Aside from various American dialects, he even manages to pepper his dialog (which he also wrote) with seemingly authentic Pakistani, Russian and Spanish.
Impersonations and imitations are incredibly difficult to do well. When they’re not done well they’re cringe-worthy, and once a performer has crossed into that territory it’s all but impossible to come back. Conversely, those who have mastered the art seem to have that special something, a little magic perhaps, in their performance. Erlbach is that performer. Ordinarily, it would be a fool’s errand to attempt to pull off such a stunt, but he does so flawlessly. He is raw, unadulterated talent as both writer and performer.
Handbook For An American Revolutionary is like a live performance of iconoclast Studs Terkel’s interviews. Real people talking about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do. The uniting thread is that they are all Americans, living an American experience that may or not be less than ideal. There is something brewing below the surface at times, we can’t quite tell what, but these are all Americans: some suffering, some scheming, some guilty, some innocent; and all hoping for more and looking for change. Most important, as preached by Erlbach’s charismatic Reverend Washington of Mississippi, “this ain’t no solo show. It’s a community. And we move forward — and backward — together in this American story.” And it’s one that everyone should see.
Handbook For An American Revolutionary. Through August 3 at The Gym at Judson (243 Thompson Street at Washington Square South). www.HandbookNYC.com