While sitting through the 45-minute, one-man show Thou Shall Rot in Hell for FringeNext, I didn’t feel shocked at all. The language. The frank discussion of sexuality. The blasphemy. These are the things, presumably, that teenage actor/playwright Zak Kelly sardonically claims got the show banned from public school.
The audience, composed mostly of teenage girls, in the Black Box Theater of Cincinnati’s School for the Performing and Creative Arts, however, gasped and gawked at the appropriate times. Looking past the surface level irreverence, however, the show is engaging and, most importantly, funny — and it’s clear that Kelly is a talent on the rise.
The premise is simple: Kelly died and is in Hell. Hell is a simplistic place, composed of scuffed tiles, dimmed lights and a single projector screen in the background. Aside from a mocking, foul-mouthed voice that taunts Kelly sporadically, he is alone.
Kelly is told that he now has an opportunity for introspection, and if he can repent his sinful ways he’ll have a chance at Heaven. Kelly monologues 10 confessions, cataloguing his problems with the Catholic church, life growing up as a homosexual and troubled relations with family.
The obvious inspiration is the work of David Sedaris, the famous writer and NPR radio personality with the biting wit. What Kelly lacks is Sedaris’ sentimentality, instead opting for the cynicism of youth and, surprisingly, a stark nihilism. Kelly’s confessions turn out to be instead rants railing against those who have wronged him, giving the young actor a chance to try on several voices and accents as he recreates long lost conversations that ring with truth. The best is his Mamaw, who smokes and blames bisexuals for AIDS because Dr. Oz told her so, as Kelly somehow channels an ancient woman through perfect body language. Less perfect is his Grandpa, who goes over the edge into caricature without the rounded edges of the other personalities.
Kelly doesn’t take full advantage of the space, often times sticking to the center of the stage, which unfortunately lends the show a claustrophobic feel. It’s obvious that budget only permitted minimalism, but there’s no real attempt taking advantage of Hell as a setting. Kelly’s monologuing begs for him to break the fourth wall and involve the audience, but falls just short.
Still, the show can’t be faulted for what it doesn’t do, and what it does do is fun and entertaining. Kelly has great stage presence and comic timing as an actor and as a writer is brave enough to create a “character” that is not necessarily sympathetic but is definitely relatable.
PERFORMANCE SCHEDULE: 9 p.m. May 31 and 5 p.m. June 1 at SCPA. Find more of CityBeat's ongoing 2013 Cincy Fringe Festival coverage, including performance reviews, commentary and venue details, here.