By Stanford Friedman
Growing Up Fundie is FringeNYC at its purest, which is to say that it’s a holy mess. Comedian Brooke Arnold’s solo show asks us to consider the fine lines between a stand-up routine, a theater piece and a therapy session, while pondering which is the worse actor’s nightmare: to be forced into an abusive Christian fundamentalist lifestyle as a child, or to have an audience member so tone deaf to the material that his raucous laughter overshadows the performance. It was a disturbing opening night, on many levels.
I’ve never encountered anyone, on stage or off, who hates her God as much as Arnold does, though one can hardly blame her. After her parents embraced fundamentalism, she was raised in a trailer under the extremely creepy ATI homeschooling program, cutting her off from any semblance of a normal lifestyle. Dysfunctional interactions of every sort wrecked her childhood until she could take it no more and made her escape. Uneducated, homeless and abused over the next eight years, she nonetheless found the wherewithal to gain a college education. These days, when not doing comedy, she writes and speaks of her experiences via media outlets ranging from Salon.com to Fox News.
So, as you might imagine, her comedy is dark. When pointing the laughs toward religion, the jokes tend to pay off. She puts the fun in fundamentalism when a man and woman from the audience are brought up to play a game called “Who Wants to be Home Schooled,” with the woman, of course, punished for trying to speak. But when turning the humor toward herself, the laughter comes nervously. That is, unless you were the one gentleman across the aisle from me, in this very small theater space, who thought he was watching a Monty Python routine. As Arnold dabbled in observations about abortion, suicide and sexual abuse, this guy’s guffaws were so loud and protracted that it spooked the rest of the audience, and no doubt messed with Arnold’s rhythm.
Audience distractions aside, the show could still use some work. Director Laura Hooper, perhaps dreaming of Olympic gymnastics, has Arnold dashing all over the place, in and out of the lighting, off stage and back, haphazardly. Two quick video parodies of Pride and Prejudice and Good Will Hunting are more dated than they are humorous. And Arnold’s persona wavers between stand-up comic with a forced delivery, and deeply personal confessor. There is too much weight for her to get off of her chest in a mere basement show at a Fringe Festival. She seemed close to tears at the end, and not in a good way. Best case scenario would be for the audience to leave the theater feeling impressed and emboldened by Arnold’s struggle. I left just feeling worried.
Growing Up Fundie– Written and performed by Brooke Arnold; Directed by Laura Hooper.
WITH: Geoffrey K (on video as Robin Williams/Mr. Darcy).
Lighting and Sound by Christina Verde. At the New York International Fringe Festival. The Huron Club, 15 Vandam St. http://www.fringenyc.org/basic_page.php?ltr=G. Through August 27. Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes