Friday, November 5, 2010

Denver's PHAMALy, a theater troupe of disabled actors, delivers a comedy punch

From John Moore, the Denver Post Theater Critic:

The disabled can take a joke. And more and more, they can write them. ... And deliver them.

Did you hear the one about the gimp, the cripple and the retard?

Before you gasp in indignation, consider that those incendiary words are being used for levity by the very same people who hear them used most often derisively.

Members of Denver's handicapped theater company, PHAMALy, "zing the sting" right out of those invectives and more in "Vox Phamalia: Triage," an annual evening of comedy sketches that ask burning comic questions like, "What happens when a blind man is afraid of the dark?"

If that makes you a bit squeamish, it's natural: You've been taught not to laugh at the expense of the disabled. But times are changing. You're now welcome to laugh with the disabled — at your expense.

"Vox Phamalia" will run you $15. Ten bucks gets you into the upcoming "Love and Other Drugs," a romantic comedy about Parkinson's disease (yes, really) starring hot Hollywood duo Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway. Twenty-two bills scores you a ticket to see Denver's own Josh Blue, the comic who puts the cerebral in cerebral palsy, when he headlines at Comedy Works on Dec. 23 and 26.

And five bucks gets you PHAMALy's new line of greeting-cards for the disabled, with cheeky get-well messages like, "Dearest friend . . . I hope you come out of the coma before they throw this card away."

Before you do a spit-take: That punch line was written by "Vox" writer Jeremy Palmer, who himself was put into a medically induced coma during open-heart surgery earlier this year.

"Had I woken up from my coma to be greeted by that card, I definitely would have found it funny," said Palmer, who was born with one lung and multiple heart defects.

His point: "Just because you're seriously injured doesn't mean you have to take everything so seriously."

Of course the old standby, "It takes one to know one" still very much applies — nothing will stop a dinner party cold like some able-bodied oaf making light of a stutterer, or carping about preferential parking for the handicapped.

What has evolved is the disabled's willingness to laugh at themselves — and you.

"We're not little pulps of flesh sitting around in a wheelchair," said "Vox" director Edith Weiss. "We hear it. We see it. We're reacting to it."

Handicapped people make up the largest minority community in this country. Many see this cumulative rush to laugh with them as a healthy opportunity to redirect people's well-intentioned, but often misdirected, thinking.

"This kind of comedy can be a consciousness-raising experience for those watching who don't face the same kind of daily challenges they do," said Marna Ares, planner for the Colorado Developmental Disabilities Council and mother of a special-needs son. "It's a great way for people to laugh and learn in a very relaxed way that disabilities are a natural part of life."

Every bellyache the disabled can turn into a belly-laugh, Weiss said, is for them an act of empowerment, equality and education.

"When you hold any group of people up and say, 'You must be careful; they cannot be laughed at,' that says to me this group is not equal," said Weiss, an able-bodied comic who led her "Vox" team of 13 through a 12-week comedy-writing intensive.

Of course, there is always a line. And in comedy, if you aren't broaching it, you just aren't cutting it. "Comedy cannot be bland and still make a point," said Weiss. She draws the line at malice.

"Laughing is the most powerful thing you can do that cannot result in harm — as long as it is laughter that is shared," she said.

So go ahead and stare. Please.

"I want you to pay attention to me," said Lucy Roucis, who has been performing her stand-up routine, "The Pros and Cons of Parkinson's," since soon after her early-onset diagnosis in 1985. "You just might learn something . . . and you just might fall down laughing at the same time."

Roucis, who was steadily working in Hollywood before her diagnosis, "always kept a candle lit for my comedy," she said,

PHAMALy's new line of greeting cards features cheeky messages. even though jobs for the disabled in the film industry are extraordinarily few. But she landed a small but pivotal role in "Love and Other Drugs," which opens Nov. 24.

She got it by sending director Ed Zwick a video of her "pros and cons" routine. Zwick loved it so much, he tore up the scene he had written for the film. Instead he turned the camera on Roucis and let her deliver one of her "cons": "Offering to hold the kid for a minute — and he ends up in that tree over there."

If people question, however gently, the appropriateness of laughing at an incurable disease, Roucis tells them: "Lighten up. It's comedy."

She's used to meeting caring people who learn of her condition and say, "Oh, how sad." Laughing at Parkinson's, Roucis says, "just takes the 'boo-hoo' right out of it."

What people need, Roucis said, is "permission to laugh." Which happens to be the working title of her memoir.

"When I was diagnosed, I decided right away the only way I was going to survive is if I could laugh about it," she said. "So whenever I tell people I have this disease, I try at all costs to get them to laugh at it with me. Not for my sake — because that helps them.

"And it is empowering for me to make people laugh because it means that I am controlling the disability; it's not controlling me."

Wherever "the line" is, most would agree the word "retarded" belongs on the other side of it. PHAMALy actor Twanna LaTrice Hill understands that better than most.

"I'm black, so of course I immediately equate the r-word to the n-word, " said Hill, who suffered a pulmonary collapse five years ago. After being in an induced coma for two weeks, she was further diagnosed with lupus, a neurological disease that puts her at constant risk of falling over.

Celebrity campaigns have been waged on social-networking sites to eradicate the use of expressions like "that's so retarded" and "that's so gay," to raise awareness that those seemingly innocuous insults foster discrimination.

That doesn't mean Hill won't say them on a stage — to make a point.

"Like many marginalized and disenfranchised populations, there is reclamation of power that goes with being able to take words that have been used pejoratively and use them to make people laugh," said Hill. "While I do think the primary purpose of 'Vox' is entertainment, it also serves the secondary purpose of advocacy."

But furthering understanding of the disabled, she said, requires an audience not made up entirely of disabled people.

"Like most movements, if you continue the conversation only among yourselves, you're not going to get very far," she said. "Women, for example, can talk about ending sexual violence as much as they want, but until they have as many male comrades in the fight with them, it's not going to stop."

If Ares, of the Colorado Developmental Disabilities Council, has a reservation about PHAMALy's mission, it's not on stage. It's in the program, where the company has a longtime policy of identifying each performer's disability.

"They don't do a service to people with disabilities by giving each actor a 'disability label,' " said Ares. "That encourages the general public to see their disability first and not gifted actors and people first.

"It's not good to tell people that there is something wrong with them. There is nothing broken about a person with a disability; they just do things differently."

But life in the disabled community is different, Hill said — and death is more ever-present. PHAMALy keeps a running memoriam in its programs to those members who have died — more than 15 in its first 20 years. Most recently, 13-year member Chaz Jacobson, from a disease of the central nervous system.

"One of the many things we all have in common is that our health is fragile," said Hill. "I am going to lose more friends, or they are going to lose me. So being able to not live in that serious, scary, dark place all of the time, worried about what's going to happen next with my illness — that is very empowering for me."

Weiss admits that a few who attended last year's "Vox" said they won't be back. Those are the wages of comedy: If you haven't offended somebody, you haven't done your job.

You have done your job, Palmer said, if you have engaged your audience.

"I think if someone is laughing at something, then that almost by definition means they have to be thinking about it," he said.

"And that's a good step in the right direction."