JFKFC October 30, Onyx Theatre.
Billed as a night of avant-garde performance art from his TSTMRKT Theater, Ernest Hemmings’ latest piece, JFKFC, which played for one night only at the Onyx Theatre on October 30, was actually a very straightforward evening of sketch comedy. But avant-garde or not, it delivered the laughs.
The sketches veered from the slightly absurd (a piano teacher with no arms) to the typical (a remarkably jealous girlfriend interrogating her boyfriend), with the added gimmick that it all played out to a prerecorded soundtrack of dialogue and sound effects. There was also running video throughout the pieces, though that only served as a necessary backdrop during a couple of the shorts. So when Hemmings, playing a beleaguered commuter, heaped verbal abuse on the iPhone’s Siri when the program didn’t understand his request and directed him into multiple U-turns, or when Breon Jenay, playing a twitchy cop, hit her siren and then got out of her car to question him—their timing was dictated by the tempo of the tracks. This was a little awkward, and introduced a hesitant, reactionary physicality at times that distracted from the very funny stuff that was happening—like the fact that the cop was treating Siri like a real person.
When the sound effects retreated to the background, and low-tech theatricality got reinvolved, the material shined. Hemmings’ wide variety of characters were played with specificity and elan. Even when some of his impressions—a gay waiter, an Eastern European of indeterminate origin—were broad, the jokes were never about their type, but grounded in the situation. Jenay was his foil throughout the sketches, and her intense energy fueled her characters. Whether that twitchy cop, a stoned gang-banger or a seriously abused restaurant patron, all her characters were ready for action and committed to going the distance for humor.
Like all sketch comedy shows, some bits lacked a proper ending and just faded away, and some of the conceits felt like they were mining well-trod territory. But even then, their specificity saved them. No matter if the conceit of Death playing a game beneath his dignity before he’s able to gather a soul is old—the image of Death shaking out his burning forearm after a particularly frantic round of Hungry Hungry Hippos is sharp enough to still cause laughs.