East 10th Street

Life in a rooming house in New York’s East 10th Street is the subject of this gripping one-man show, which is billed rather pompously as a ‘self portrait with empty house’. After experiencing the show, I can see why. Edgar Oliver recreates his experiences in exquisitely-chosen words. His prose flows seamlessly, beautifully crafted, with not a word wasted, every syllable a brush-stroke. Like a Cezanne painting, the lines, contours and colours are perfectly balanced within the confines of the frame. And just like in a Cezanne painting, where the brushstrokes are limited, similar, yet containing and infinite variety of pressure and length, so Oliver modulates his voice in a distinctive and highly individual style that defies definition. It has a repetitive pattern, but is not monotonous. It would drive a public speaking instructor mad, but is fascinatingly compelling to listen to. His idioms and ways of pronouncing certain words are quixotic, eccentric and ultimately very endearing. Were it not for his exquisitely resonant and strongly-grounded voice quality, revealing the strength of the man behind the fragile façade, his repetitive sing-song delivery would never work, but it does. It is gripping, haunting, mesmerising. As the show starts, music underscores his voice, and then his voice becomes the music. The lighting scheme creates the effect of being in a cave or an underground amphitheatre, with the actor inhabiting both the central space and its perimeter. Oliver stands in a ring of light and has his audience spellbound as he transmutes everyday experience into tales of mythic dimensions. Gesturing as if casting a spell using words of power, Oliver incants the words that weave the tale of how he and his sister ended up in the East 10th Street building with the oddest and most surreal bunch of eccentrics you have ever come across – all frighteningly real, recreated before the audience’s eyes with nothing but words. Oliver conjures into life this surreal mix of characters seemingly jumbling up the worlds of Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Peake’s Gormenghast, with a touch of Ovid’s Metamorphosis and placing the resulting alchemically-created beings in the heaving metropolis of New York. There’s Oliver’s sister, Helen, an eccentric visual artist, who casts the I Ching regularly and is chased out of Paris by rats; Freddie Feldman, the midget Kabalist; grey-clad Edwin Landner who has eight padlocks on his door; bath towel-clad, bulbous-bellied Mr Supter, who isn’t really who they think he is; Jason, the twenty-year old Greek god lookalike who arrives for a dinner party and ritualistically lies on the floor and goes to sleep before the first course is served … and many more besides, each more eccentric than the other. Oliver is a rare talent. He manages to distil the essence of traditional storytelling, and recreate it in a scripted show, delivering it as a flowing intimate conversation. The ease with which he pulls this off belies the incredibly complexity and skill it demands. It is no surprise he is known as a living legend. He not only deserves the accolade, he embodies it.

Reviews by Leon Conrad

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The Blurb

NYC theatre icon Edgar Oliver weaves a fantastical and hilarious voyage through an East Village tenement building inhabited by dwarfs, cabalists and possible Nazis! 'A living work of theater all by himself' (New York Times).

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