by Stephen Mosher
The art of doing a Solo Show takes a special person To imagine, invent, write, create, perform all by yourself is to really put it out there, to expose your most vulnerable place as an artist. To go out on that limb takes extreme bravery. Sometimes it pays off for the audience and for the artist and other times everyone who shows up on the night in question hears the painful strains of crickets chirping in the twilight of the night, somewhere in an Iowa cornfield.
No such crickets sounded the alarm when the audience at Dixon Place in New York City was treated to Melissa Mahoney Is A Robot on April 27th. The sounds that filled the venue known for taking a chance on unknown artists, experimental pieces and theatre with a vision went beyond laughter and screams of glee, though. At times certain audience members were heard to sigh a sympathetic 'aaaaaah!' as the Robot struggled to find happiness on a new planet. Other times watchers were heard to utter familiar dialogue or sing well-known tunes along with the Robot. And even once or twice there was the sound of a sniffle as empathy moved people of emotional elevation to respond to a character whose native language was one we did not even understand. All communications between the earthlings at Dixon Place and the titular character in Melissa Mahoney Is A Robot were visceral and relied on us understanding her and relating to her, even as she spoke a gibberish language we did not know ... except when she was using quotes from famous movies and songs, which also had great meaning to her willingly captive audience because those quotes and that music are old friends to us and we can always hear them. Especially when so brilliantly presented.
Melissa Mahoney Is A Robot is the eponymous creation of New York actress and Atlantic Theater Acting Instructor Melissa Mahoney. She is listed as the writer, director, choreographer, sound designer and performer for the piece but she is not alone up there. The play begins with an omnipotent voice (performed and digitally manipulated by Mahoney, then executed with genius technical timing by co-director Dan Tracy) that sets up the story but breaks down into an extremely frank and personal one-sided chat with the audience until the Robot is finally brought onto the stage, to the delight of that audience, one echoing with peals of laughter for the sixty-minute solo play.
The story of the play is simple. The Robot lives on another planet, a planet of drones who awaken each day and go to work. This Robot, though, is no typical drone. She has a great deal of personality and so, it seems, do the colleagues that she encounters upon leaving her home, all roles embodied perfectly by Miss Mahoney. Upon waking, we see the Robot get ready for work, go to work, communicate with colleagues and go about the monotony of the day (perfectly illustrated by Miss Mahoney through the use of onstage physicality, astonishingly dexterous vocal sounds that rise to the level of special effects, carefully hidden props and deft mime). This is the kind of performance art that might leave some members of the audience scratching their heads or shifting in their seats but the night I saw the play I looked around me to see a group of fifty or so people transfixed, laughing and listening. Indeed, we were the drones and Miss Mahoney was our Queen, dare I even say Borg Queen. Yes, I think I may.
The Robot is assigned an important task that will take her, via spaceship, to Earth. The rocket trip is a hilarious bit of mime, particularly when the spaceship crash lands, stranding the Robot forever on the third rock from the sun. In her exasperated attempts to find a way back home, the Robot finds an iPhone and a laptop and through these devices discovers pop culture and the music and movies of Earthlings. What follows is an Olympic event in lip-syncing and impressions, one which had the audience howling with laughter and applauding every few seconds. It was a remarkable feat that left me asking myself where actors like this powerhouse of a woman get it from? Where, I wondered, did Melissa Mahoney learn to impersonate so many famous people? How many hours did it take to perfect her lip syncing of these incredibly famous bits of movie dialogue and pop music? What place inside of her head gave birth to the Robot? And where is the well of energy that it takes for her to put forth the energy and commitment that overwhelmed the audience that was privileged to witness this incredible work of art?
I’ll tell you something honestly. I’m not really a performance art person. I’m not always apt to enjoy something that is off the theatrical beaten path. Experimental theatre and solo shows tend to be lost on me, as I prefer linear theatre with a proscenium arch. I don’t do wacky, I don’t do wild, I don’t do oddball. And Melissa Mahoney Is A Robot is wacky, wild and oddball. It is also wonderful, exciting, entertaining and human. I related to the Robot. I wished well on her. I wanted her to get what she wanted. I wanted her to keep on going so that I could fall more in love with her. The Robot is one of the most inventive and hilarious, personable and human creations I’ve seen in a while. If she were stranded on Earth and found her way into Midtown Manhattan I would offer her my guest room, and nobody gets the guest room, not even my son. The play Melissa Mahoney Is A Robot cannot be defined as one genre of theatre. It is equal parts play, performance art, dance, sketch comedy, clownery and self-help because after all of the entertainment that Melissa Mahoney pulls from what must be the deepest place of her being, there is a message that urges we can all find our place in the world, in any world, in any universe. Even a gibberish speaking, movie quoting, moonwalking Robot.
This evening of theatre was a one-off. It is not currently set to play another space in 2019. I am hoping that that will change because I think that people everywhere will enjoy this play that has been produced twice before, once at The Tank in NYC and once at The Pit for the Solocom Festival. I think if there are solo performance festivals, one-person play festivals and any other kinds of series where artists gather to perform the shows where they stand in that most vulnerable and lonely place, center stage alone, Melissa Mahoney Is a Robot should be featured on the bill. It is that surprising, that original, that enjoyable. Anyone interested in keeping an eye out for future performance of Melissa Mahoney Is A Robot can follow Miss Mahoney on Instagram or her official website.
As the sated audience was departing the seating arena, I heard somebody say, 'She’s a 21st Century Carol Burnett.'
I can wholeheartedly validate that endorsement.
Read more of Stephen's reviews at HOTCHKA.com.