“Wet the Hippo” Whets the Hippo

Ahhhh. It took 12 shows and about 9 days but I finally saw that show that always makes me go, “Ahhhh, now this is why I love the Fringe.”

It happens every year, Four Clowns year one, Porter’s Macbeth year two, Button Wagon and Fear Factor year three. Ahhhh yes.

I have plenty more to see and am looking forward to more nuggets – as well as the odd soul-crushing experience (hey, they can be just as entertaining in their own right as long as they aren’t longer than an hour!) – but after seeing Wet the Hippo on Friday night at The Complex, my belief in this crazy experiment called the Hollywood Fringe is officially renewed and I am now officially “engaged”.

I’ve seen some okay shows so far, some not so okay shows, and one that I hated, but Wet the Hippo was just what the doctor ordered. How best to describe it? Tribal Improv, Primal Improv, the experience is akin to accidentally stumbling upon a very intimate group therapy session, except that these people are so committed, so talented, so rivetingly trusting in each other and their leader John Gilkey, that the evening soars from hilarity to poignancy to the grotesque and back again with an immediacy and honesty that at times seems impossible. And yet, I was there and so were about fifty other people and I can securely say, “Wow.”

John Gilkey is a one-time lead clown from Cirque Du Soleil, actually performing in and ultimately being let go by the recent Hollywood Cirque incarnation Iris and as he mentioned to me after the show, the company – known as the Idiot Workshop – and the show – hard to tell if the title is of the company or of the show (probably a little bit of both) – were born from his classes that actually take place at The Complex Theatre in the Shepherd Studio Theatre where the show Wet the Hippo takes place. As he says at the beginning of the show, “Welcome to our home.” And no truer words could have been spoken. In many ways, we the audience are simply entering into a process that has already begun and catching it at a point in time that will never exist again. Gilkey acts as shaman and coach and parent and therapist, snapping his fingers, tapping shoulders, gently and sometimes sharply coaxing and cajoling and engaging his troupe members at all times to do this or that, he is both performer and ringmaster to this band of ten very young and wildly imaginative performers.

A violinist is part of the troupe and his exchange at one point with one boldly honest actress provided the evening’s most poignant moments. A woman speaks to the violinist, a flirtatious chance meeting, and the violinist responds in kind with tiny flourishes on the strings, relaying wordless emotion and tone that are in turn translated by the actress’s response to them. The sequence was transcendent, funny, amazingly clear, and ultimately heart-breaking as the woman finally realizes she is once again headed for heartbreak and has allowed herself to become vulnerable to yet another man on the make. All this with one of the participants in the scene never saying a word. Beautiful.

But there is humor an oddity here as well; an orgasmic experience that starts off with two socially-inept individuals meeting, initially barely able to communicate, finally giving over to their lusts via talk of food and a salad that happens to get too close to one of the duos nether regions; an interpretive dance number between two men that sets out to make sense of 9/11 – broken into three separate movements of course – that ultimately reads like a love affair between Keaton and Chaplain on crack, and an absolutely hilarious Beatnik-esque number where a painfully shy woman whispers her words to a drumming performer who then stops to deliver the incantations – about her experiences at the gynecologist and her conflicted sexual fantasies – then strikes up the hallucinatory drumming again, each confidential interpretation getting longer and more and more bizarre.

All of the movements and sequences and scenes blend one into the other, not all fulfilling their dramatic potential, but each so fully committed to and so well orchestrated by Gilkey, that the whole thing feels like a jazz symphony made up on the spot by Duke, Miles, Coltrane and Fitzgerald. Yes, the members of Wet the Hippo are that good.

It is hard to single out one person over the other, as a matter of fact it’s almost impossible because the piece is such a collaborative effort, but their names in no particular order are: John Gilkey, Michael Lieberman, Natalie Palamides, Claire Titelman, Scotch Wichmann, Alec Jones-Trujillo, Gabe McKinney, Tim Reid and Tyler Watson.

This show should simply not be missed. This is what Fringe is all about, folks, that thing you can’t see anywhere else. Wet the Hippo will whet your Hippo. The one you didn’t even realize you had living inside you waiting to get out.

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Colin Mitchell About the Author: COLIN MITCHELL: Actor/Writer/Director/Producer/Father, award-winning playwright and screenwriter, Broadway veteran, Marvel comics scribe, Van Morrison disciple, Zen-Catholic, a proud U.S. Army Brat conceived in Scotland and born in Frankfurt, Germany, currently living in Los Angeles and doing his best to piss off as many people as possible.

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