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Humor 101

'Night School' makes the grade

By Daedalus Howell

ACTOR BILL KILLINGER must have a multiple-personality disorder. At Odyssey Theatre's production of Charlie Varon's one-man media lampoon, Rush Limbaugh in Night School, Killinger effects in excess of 20 characters in two hours--a challenge some better-stocked area companies could meet in personnel but not in talent. Killinger could date Sybil.

Originally performed in San Francisco in 1994 by playwright Varon and subsequently touring across the nation, Rush Limbaugh in Night School is posited as a PBS television documentary. The arch-Republican radio personality's listenership (1 percent of the world's population) is being chiseled at by rival radio man J. Neil Rodriguez--a popular Latino commentator. Limbaugh's management devises a doubtful quick-fix in the form of Spanish lessons.

Disguised in a Van Dyke beard and Ben and Jerry's T-shirt (the perceived garb de corps for liberals), Limbaugh attends an experimental night school and discovers himself amidst fixtures of the lefty population he despises (from feminists to eco-people--each waggishly introduced by Killinger).

In class, Limbaugh meets Nina Eggly (a fugitive ex-member of the Weather Underground also in disguise), and predictable sparks fly as the love plot leads to a climax at a New York Shakespeare Festival production of Othello directed by Spalding Gray and starring Limbaugh in the title role.

Camp reigns supreme. Varon's convoluted schtick plays like a pitch session for a Tom Robbins novel.

Killinger's amicable demeanor accounts for much of the production's effectiveness. A jaunty fellow who beams neighborly charm, Killinger is the West Coast Everyman, adorned in a comfortable (but fashionable) tweed sports-coat, jeans, sensible shoes, and a frosty mustache--the perfect conduit for Varon's knee-slapping vitriol that all but clips the right wing.

Credit director Carl Hamilton for successfully conducting Killinger through the byzantine monologue. With Hamilton's guidance Killinger leaps into each character as though hopping cars on a train. The effect is not the trite "seamlessness" one generally expects of a multicharacter performer, but sudden breaks in operation that recall the antics of counterculture orator Lord Buckley (though intelligibly slower).

Killinger's celebrity impersonations are adept (Garrison Keillor, Spalding Gray, and others) but do not rely on accurate re-creations of voice and manner. Likewise, Killinger's vocal impersonation of Jackie Mason captures the Zeitgeist of the character even when the actor chucks any semblance of real language and instead importunately barks.

Although Limbaugh, an active (if inadvertent) self-satirist, leaves only meager table scraps for comedians to gnaw on (he's his own best lampoonist), Killinger bares his fangs and feasts heartily on the gristle and even garners sympathy for the unlikable hulk's plight.

Killinger also excels at interpreting the play's myriad female characters (his Nina smacks of Mira Sorvino's comic voice in Mighty Aphrodite), including a sharp riff on television pundit Cokie Roberts.

Unfortunately, some of Varon's references date the play--Limbaugh himself is old news (he has already entered the pantheon of kitsch celebrities and has long been overshadowed by radio-rival shock-jock Howard Stern, who too seems to be receding back into the ephemera of the airwaves). To prolong the show's shelf life, Hamilton and Killinger have augmented the text to include local references, including a clever, if defensive, jab at local theater critic Chris Garcia.

Set director Jamie Smith creates a commodious play-area for Killinger in the smaller of Spreckels' two auditoriums. The Spartan digs are reminiscent of the BBC's television show The Two Ronnies set, containing only a stuffed chair, a throw rug, and some stylishly utilitarian end tables bearing a water glass and pitcher. John Kelly's stark light design is a logical match for the set, with well-hewn spot-work (executed by Mike Bronson) at key moments of the play. The blaring broadcast of Limbaugh's talk-show that opens each act also contributes to the ambiance.

It is interesting that Varon would write and stage a one-person show well after the trend for solo theater had peaked. Such scaled-down affairs proliferated in the late '80s and ushered performers of media culture's middling caste like Rick Reynolds (All Grown Up and Nowhere to Go) and Spalding Gray (Swimming to Cambodia) into micro-celebrity. Varon's success with Rush Limbaugh in Night School can be attributed, however, to the fact that the writer need not perform the material.

Reynolds' and Gray's highly personal works are inextricably tied to their authors, whereas Varon's satire requires only a competent medium to download its raillery before an audience. Rush Limbaugh in Night School is the first one-person show to be easily and cheaply franchised (Dramatist's Play Service charges only $50 a performance for the privilege). Hamilton and Killinger were smart to see the play's potential and create a nimble and engaging collaboration.


Rush Limbaugh in Night School plays on Friday-Saturday at 8 p.m. through Nov. 1 and on Thursday, Oct. 30, at 7:30 p.m., at the Spreckels Performing Arts Center, 5409 Snyder Lane, Rohnert Park. Tickets are $10. 584-1700.

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From the Oct. 23-29, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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