Judge George Hatch only drinks herbal tea, but every morning his cat pokes him in the eye and tells him, "Wake up and smell the litter box!"
"If you think there's any level of compassion or empathy out there, I've got news for you. There is none. Wake up and smell the coffee! It's all anarchy and chaos."—Eric Bogosian
Eric Bogosian wants to make it clear that he's neither a comedian nor a performance artist. He's "never performed in comedy clubs, never did stand-up…performance art is performance made by visual artists." Bogosian is a "creator of monologues and solo shows." Well, in Wake Up and Smell the Coffee, he's going to make you laugh louder than any comedian I've heard in the past several years. And the sharp direction by Michael Rauch, along with his ingenious co-editing with David Kausch, has transformed Bogosian's solo monologue into a visually dynamic performance piece that can be seen on the latest of Docurama's outstanding DVD releases.
Eric Bogosian's solos have earned him three Obies and a Drama Desk Award; this year, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to continue his work in the theater. I saw two of his solo shows in the early 1990s, Pounding Nails in the Floor with My Forehead and Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll. Bogosian's stage presence is electrifying and he is unlike any other monologist. In the late Spalding Gray's Monster in a Box, Gray sat behind a table for 90 minutes recounting some personal experiences and points of view. Interesting comments, but it made for a static transition to the screen. John Leguizamo (Freak), from my point of view, relies too much on ethnic humor. And Dennis Miller always sounds as if he's out to impress people and test their IQs with arcane references and snarky in-jokes. Yes, all three are funny and acerbic, but they don't take command of the stage and use it the way Eric Bogosian does.
In Wake Up and Smell the Coffee, Bogosian has only two props: a chair and microphone. There's a silvery black cinderblock wall as the backdrop; two panels on each side provide for shadowy and evocative projections. Simple, and necessarily off-Broadway cheap. But he uses these tools to span time and vent "the main component in my life: anger." He imagines a "dude" Christ, hanging on the cross—"Ironic, because he was a carpenter, right?"—thinking about "those 12 deadbeats I hung out with who never picked up the check." Then he jolts us to the present, asking, "If this is what God did to His own kid, do you really think He's going to give a damn about your sorry anonymous ass? And what about your soul? When was the last time you remembered you had one?"
Bogosian goes on skewer today's self-help gurus like Deepak Chopra. "You are but one stitch in the vast carpet of the universe, one grain of sand in the endless Sahara of the cosmos, one hair on the butt of a gorilla. Yet we all ask the eternal question: How do I get more money? And that is why I am here tonight. Each of you must give me $200 in four easy installments…" This neatly segues into an angry rant about climbing the corporate ladder—"from the lowest beggar in Calcutta all the way up to Steven Spielberg "—and becoming successful and famous. "My death would make the headlines! Yeah, and maybe some baby girl has starved to death in her crib somewhere, and she's covered with cigarette burns. But who cares…because she was a nobody." Bogosian knows how to prime his audience with some chuckles, and then goad them into a few uneasy laughs. When they're expecting a hilarious punchline, he gives them a swift kick in the balls and a haymaker to the heart instead.
There are some big belly laughs when Bogosian gets territorial and deals with "boundary issues." He's taken his sons to a baseball game and they become a little too enthusiastic, so he tells them to "calm down, boys." Another spectator tells him to stop "yelling" so he can concentrate on the game. Bogosian says, "These are my kids. They are not your kids. Do I tell you to put a bag over your wife's head because she's so damn ugly?" During an airport encounter, Bogosian is an all-too-prissy ticket clerk assuring an irate customer that "Gold Card passengers are our first priority. Would you like a complimentary voucher for a cup of Starbucks coffee while you wait? There's no need to use language like that, sir." He closes his show as a philosophical hitchhiker. "I'm a first-class passenger on the Spaceship Earth, and all I have is a one-way ticket. I figure I can go the service road, or take the scenic route. I'm only doing this once so I want it to be in full color and beautiful. It won't matter if nobody knows where I am. I'll know where I am, and that's what's important." Bogosian knows where he is, and you'll know where he's coming from after watching Wake Up and Smell the Coffee.
As an actor, Eric Bogosian has had bit parts in over 30 films, but he's probably best known as the caustic talk-show host in Oliver Stone's Talk Radio, which was adapted from Bogosian's stage play. His multifaceted talents are matched only by the multiple personalities he assumes in Wake Up and Smell the Coffee. For those who haven't seen him on stage, Docurama's DVD release of this show is as close as you're going to get to his inspired and profound observations. Wake Up and Smell the Coffee was performed live in the Jane Street Theater, a small off-Broadway house with less than 300 seats and a tiny stage. Director Michael Rauch, together with three cameramen and one Steadicam operator, managed to "open up" the solo show while staying within the confines of this small space, so the full-frame transfer is most appropriate here, and the transfer looks terrific. Smart lighting and sound effects move the viewer into the various aspects of Bogosian's mind. There are no subtitles, and I seriously doubt they could have kept up with Bogosian's rapid-fire delivery anyway. The Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo lets you hear every word, and it's sharply divided so that a plane flying overhead and trains speeding by move from one speaker to the other.
The extras include filmographies of Bogosian and the crew, and a Docurama catalog with a few trailers for some of the company's other releases, including A Decade Under the Influence and Baadasssss Cinema: A Bold Look At '70s Blaxploitation. And here is a case in which I would suggest that you watch the 12-minute interview with Eric Bogosian before his solo performance. He goes into detail about where his ideas come from, how he develops characters and puts the momentum of a show together. I found it particularly interesting that he listened to Jack Kerouac reading his own material and he heard a "rhythm." "The literature of the Beats was meant to be read aloud," so Bogosian wanted to recreate "the rhythm and jazz of language" for his monologue. Wake Up and Smell the Coffee is one of the best solo performances to reach home video, and Docurama's presentation brilliantly captures the excitement and explosive talent of this dynamic solo performer.
Not guilty! Once Eric Bogosian gets "in-your-face," you'll see the world from a different—and shrewdly warped—perspective.
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Scales of Justice
• An Interview with Eric Bogosian
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