A pack of gum, a can of grapefruit juice, a pair of baby booties hand-knitted by Granny — these are the modest spoils of Jimmy Hogg’s A Brief History of Petty Crime, one of four Cincy Fringe solo shows assigned to the small platform stage at Media Bridges. The unassuming title, no-frills setting and even the rumbling Race Street traffic all serve Hogg well: At one moment on Wednesday’s opening night, a clunker passed just as Hogg spoke of his first illicit joyrides in his dad’s car.
“Raw sound effects,” Hogg gleefully ad libbed, jabbing a finger in the direction of the engine’s receding roar. “That’s fringe theater right there!”
Returning to his tale, Hogg recalls one underage drive in particular — out with a friend to a teen party thrillingly located in the middle of nowhere — that resulted in a rollover accident, a positive Breathalyzer test and the very real possibility of jail time. Hogg keeps veering back to that critical moment, hands gripping the (imaginary) wheel, foot slammed on an unresponsive break pedal, certain death approaching super-slow-mo from the next intersection, while leading us on a series of pleasing narrative detours. It’s a classic storyteller’s device, and it works here like spit on a shoplifter’s palm.
We’re completely taken in.
Hogg says he learned the tricks of the thieves’ trade from his dad, “a natural-born cheapskate with a taste for luxuries.” This and other mitigating factors of Hogg’s working-class background, combined with his frankness and offbeat charm, move us to judge his exploits kindly. Even if we were inclined to condemn his crimes, this show has entertained enough audiences in Toronto (the British Hogg’s current home base), San Francisco and elsewhere that the lad clearly has paid his debt to society. He might even be rehabilitated from the karmic disaster of having had some indirect hand, some years ago, in the stabbing death of an innocent young woman — a funny/awful story that launches his monologue.
That episode and most others include quaint references to provincial life in the UK, which no doubt enhance the show’s appeal for North American audiences. Then there’s that great English awkwardness: Fans of the original British TV series The Office will hear echoes of David Brent in Hogg’s earnest efforts to impersonate a deer, for instance, or to represent a police station with “a lot of bad pantomime.” For which Hogg makes no apologies: “If I did it really well, you’d be like, ‘I don’t relate to that guy. He’s too good.’”
To some degree, that’s true — although Cincy Fringe audiences last year had no trouble connecting with the virtuosic pantomime performance of 7(x1) Samurai or the excellent songs of Kevin Thornton’s Sex, Dreams and Self-Control, two solo acts with fringe-circuit pedigrees comparable to Hogg’s but with surpassing artistry. And while Hogg’s remembered fecklessness as a juvenile delinquent never fails to convince and amuse, we don’t always buy his “failures” as an actor.
When Hogg breaks character with a bit of self-deprecating laughter, there’s a sense that he’s broken up in just that way, at that moment, many times before. His history as a trained mover, in the Lecoq/commedia tradition, likewise gets in his way.
Too many of his non-stop gestures — sipping a drink, opening a door — are technically fine but unnecessary, merely duplicating information we’re already getting from his spoken text. More economy of movement, and a less-practiced spontaneity overall, would make this law-breaking boyhood memoir the perfect crime.
(Get upcoming performance dates and venue details here.)
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