Sunday, January 26, 2014

Kevin Burke brings his long-running relationship comedy show to Theatre on the Square

Aping the ritualistic spear hoist of our ancestors, Kevin Burke is "Defending the Caveman."
"Defending the Caveman" is a rare kind of marquee theater event to have splashed down at Theatre on the Square over the weekend for an indefinite run.

Kevin Burke has been associated with Rob Becker's one-man, two-act show since 2003, principally at Harrah's Las Vegas, where he concluded a record-setting engagement last May. To see the Zionsville resident revive his interpretation amounted to an expert showcase of comic professionalism and timing, honed to a fare-thee-well but presented with just enough audience interaction to seem fresh.

On a set representing a timeless cross between a modern home and prehistoric dwellings, with representations of cave paintings on large stone-like slabs in the background, the Caveman reviews the inevitable distance between male and female worldviews. Specifically, the way these differences keep bobbing to the surface in marriages, causing tension and thwarting successful communication.

Becker's conceit, based perhaps on paleontology to a degree I am not competent to judge, is that this gulf between the sexes goes back to the time our ancestors lived in caves. Men were focused on hunting and protecting; women, on gathering and nurturing. Vast changes in human knowledge and living conditions since then have been awkwardly overlaid on long-established sex roles, in this view.

Thus, as interpreted by Burke, Becker can comically contrast such social interactions as what happens when a bowl of snack chips is getting low. When someone notices it in a group of women, all of them take the bowl out to the kitchen to replenish, chattering as they add any number of sprightly, delicious touches. When the same dearth of chips is noticed in a group of men, each vies to come up with the best reason why he should not be responsible for getting a new supply; the guy with the weakest excuse is the loser, and must go fetch more chips after the long stalemate. It's cooperation vs. negotiation.

When the communication narrows to one man and one woman sharing lives (the only Indiana-sanctioned intimate relationship permitted, as anyone not living in a cave — whoops! — is well aware), hostility lies barely beneath the surface. Women multitask, gather information as well as things that cost money, use their imaginations and glory in detail. Men focus intensely, aim at just what they want, one goal at a time, talk little for the sake of talking and with disguised emotional input, and find imagination and obsession with detail confusing.

Much of the show is devoted to a circuitous illustrated lecture designed to refute the charge that "all men are a--holes." At the end, it's clear that performer and playwright endorse the message that not only is the charge untrue, but also that a sense of humor and some serious empathy can bridge the gulf. On that level, "Defending the Caveman" amounts to boisterously entertaining couples therapy.

On opening night, Burke's blustering style and command of gesture and space made the most of this material. His facial expressions alone cover a wide range — he doesn't settle for only one way of displaying male bafflement, for example. The mimicry is never overdone, so that the performance is rooted in Kevin Burke, with detours into the impersonation of wives under delicate control. The point of view is consistent and genial in its search for understanding between the sexes.

The firmness of that outlook brings up a challenging point now that this show is ensconced at Theatre on the Square. After Saturday's performance, I overheard one man say to a female friend: "It was a good show, but none of the humor was directed at me. It was directed at straight men."

This is undeniable. "Defending the Caveman" is fortunately devoid of any disparagement of homosexuality, but there's no question it has to be accepted as oriented to heterosexual relationships, chiefly those of long standing. Thus, it is not about male-female dating behavior, either, except tangentially (e.g., the need to compliment the woman's appearance before she invites you to).

TOTS has long been a conspicuous haven for plays on gay themes — as "out" as they can be. Remember the "Corpus Christi" controversy? So, good luck to TOTS on the extension of artistic range represented by "Defending the Caveman." People not oriented toward traditional marriage (the very term is now fraught with controversy) may find truths they can relate to and have a good time, but they will have to use their imaginations to make it personal.

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