Butt Kapinski – collectively-created Film Noir at its finest, and most vulgar

I was recently complaining to a theatrical friend of mine that of all the arts events and shows that have claimed to be immersive and interactive with their audiences, very few that I have seen truly were. That is, until I met Butt Kapinski, private eye and film noir enthusiast (performed by creator Deanna Fleysher in the Cultch’s VanCity Culture Lab). Butt Kapinski wants to make a film noir, and Butt Kapinski wants us to help him.

Deanna Fleysher as the unflappable Butt Kapinski

Deanna Fleysher as the unflappable Butt Kapinski

Obtaining and enlisting our good humour from the get-go, Fleysher’s creation, the lisping but likeable private investigator Butt Kapinski, manages to charm, cajole, and occasionally chastise his audience into creating an entire 60-minute film noir world, with its grisly murders, seedy locales, dangerous characters, and atmospheric music. As befits an old-school private “dick”, Fleysher is dressed in slacks, with suspenders and a tie, and a long trench coat with her very own streetlamp/desk lamp rising out of the back of her collar to dangle over her head. I raised my eyebrows a little when Butt Kapinski first emerged from the shadows and I saw this odd contraption, but I soon realized that this lamp is genius, immediately creating mood and bringing our focus to whichever hapless audience members are needed for the next scene. Over the course of the evening, I played spurting blood, a filthy john, and Hobo John (who was a different kind of filthy John, I guess).

[Note: Much as I love being part of the action, I did not ask to be Hobo John. I was sitting in my seat enjoying the show when Fleysher shone her light on my section, telling us that Butt Kapinski was down by the railroad tracks, where all the hobos hang out (us). “And there,” she said, climbing into to risers to stand over me, “we find the dirtiest, the most pathetic, the saddest old hobo of them all: Hobo John. What train are you waiting for, Hobo John?” I couldn’t answer because I was laughing so hard. “Yeah, well that train’s never gonna come,” Fleysher/Kapinski said, “So cry, Hobo John. Cry your filthy tears.” (at this point my face was in my hands and I was shaking), “You didn’t always used to be this way, Hobo John,” she said, and I shook my head no. “You used to be someone, didn’t ya? You used to be something special. What did you used to be, Hobo John?” and I was so nervous under that lamp I said the first thing that popped into my head, which for some reason was, “A ballerina!”. “A ballerina,” Fleysher/Kapinski sneered contemptuously, “that’s quite a change, from a ballerina to a big gross man.” and with that my time was done, and Fleysher’s light swung to a new victim/performer/audience member, and a new part of the story.]

Fleysher is a master at getting the audience on her side, and into her world. The ushers warned us as we walked in that there were no “safe seats”, and because of that’s true, I think no one was really put upon or singled out more than anyone else. However, this show is definitely not for everyone. If you do not want to play along with whatever strange, awkward, or potentially totally vulgar thing Fleysher/Kapinski is doing, this is not the show for you. Though Fleysher is an incredible improviser and can work with anything the audience members throw at her, Butt Kapinski himself really doesn’t put up with anyone being too cool or too shy or too offended to participate, so if you REALLY don’t like this sort of thing you might be better off giving this one a pass.

But if you did give it a pass, that would really be too bad. It’s been a long time since I have had so much fun at the theatre. Fleysher truly includes her audience in her work and this show genuinely cannot function without them. The Culture Lab is an intimate space and Fleysher has a unique gift for stealthily dissolving the divides of silence and civility that usually separate audience members from performers, and from each other. She is a artist who has clearly studied audiences. She knows how we react, she knows what makes us uncomfortable, and she knows how far she can go (or rather, how to get us in the palm of her hand early on so that she can go as far as she likes). The intensity and adaptability of Fleysher’s focus in the face of an ever-changing crowd of unique individuals is nothing short of miraculous (in an obscene, hilarious kind of way).

If I have one criticism of the show, it’s that I didn’t need the ending to be what it was. TC (who was with me) didn’t seem to mind it, so it might just be one of those intangible things where I see a particular part of a great show and think to myself, “Huh. Was that bit necessary?” and simply choose to write that bit off as Not For Me. Maybe it was how raunchy Fleysher got by the end; I’m not sure.

And my god, Butt Kapinski IS filthy. But small criticisms aside, it is so funny and so FUN and so unique in its ability to absorb its audience into the world it’s creating that I consider it a rare gem amongst my theatrical experiences.

Butt Kapinski runs until October 11 in the VanCity Culture Lab at the Cultch. Tickets can be purchased online from the the Cultch Vancouver.

Disclosure: TC and I were able to see the opening night performance of this show by invitation of the publicist for Butt Kapinski.

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