Louis Gervais, an established Seattle performance artist, presented shapeshifter, a character exploration in three acts, at Velocity Dance Center’s Founders Theater this past weekend, April 10-12. In this one-man show, Gervais inhabits a world enhanced by original artwork from Bill Gaylord and a set designed in collaboration with Scot Richins, interpreting his surroundings in three different ways. The audience, partially seated onstage, played an active role in response and interaction with Gervais’s three personalities, alternatingly earnest, irreverent, and over-the-top whimsical.
Gervais entered the space in a loose white tunic and pants and spun around and around with his arms wide open, gazing upwards as if experiencing a state of spiritual tranquility. His costume called up references to the martial arts, the turn series connoted the whirling dervishes of Sufism, and his dialogue with the audience continued in this mystical vein. After executing a series of karate chops, Gervais stopped moving and simply greeted the audience with a “hi.” The audience members on Friday night were uncommonly uninhibited and said “hi” right back to him. Gervais took careful time to connect with individual audience members from the front rows to draw them into the performance in a welcoming and open-hearted manner. After rhetorically asking the audience why we now say “be safe” when we used to say “have fun,” Gervais began to caricature a nerdy botanist who spoke in a reedy voice and traveled around the stage, metaphorically hugging trees. This first of Gervais’s characters was the most sincere, but at times uncomfortably so, making it unclear whether it was okay to laugh at him.
After a ten-minute intermission, Gervais re-entered as Randy, a parody of an 80s metal fan, complete with a mullet wig, black tee shirt and jeans, and a macabre, grey mask. While drinking a Bud Lite, Randy revealed the underlying form of each act, as he read from a tiny notecard stored in his back pocket. After spending a few funny moments hitting on the audience, Randy read, “Tell people what you’re curious about.” With this and further explanations, much of Gervais’s monologue in the previous act began to come clear. After talking about visiting the arboretum, a giant fan turned on, buffeting Randy’s long, flowing hair in a satisfying and amusing fashion. He then walked around behind the giant free-standing door onstage, painted with a beautifully intricate silver tree, and entered three times “into the unknown.” Randy kept following the directions on his notecard, in his own swaggering way, showing who is “in his heart” and his “shadow” by utilizing the various props littered about the stage. Randy’s characterization functioned as an obvious parody that was clearly open to be laughed at, and laugh the audience did.
The final third of shapeshifter featured Iphelia (pronounced I-feel-ya), a fluttering, flighty fairy godmother character wearing an immense ball gown, yards of pink petticoats, a white curly wig, and the same grey mask as Randy. She engaged the audience as a sort of motivational speaker, presenting an elaborate method, complete with audience-participatory hand gestures, for making a wish come to fruition. In this feel-good section, Iphelia revisited each part of Gervais’s structure a third time, both clarifying and revealing further aspects of the form. As the godmother leaped and capered about the stage, she revisited the arboretum, the door, and showed her heart and shadow, in a way that satisfied as it drew to its anticipated conclusion.
Gervais’s interactions with the audience felt successful and organic. The exaggerated characters of Randy and Iphelia produced plenty of laughter from the audience, but Gervais’s first character was slightly ambiguous. Was this the “real” Gervais, or was he simply yet another parodied facet of Gervais’s personality? Perhaps each character represented Gervais’s comment on some aspect of culture or an observation amplified to hilarity. Overall, shapeshifter was an engaging piece of performance art from an artist with an array of finely-tuned skills over a broad base of genres. As noted in the program, this year marks Gervais’s 50th birthday, and, if this production is any indication, there are still more fresh and funny works to come.