BY REBECCA DANIELS
Woodstock Fringe has come up with another winner this season: Joe Raiola’s controversial one-man show, Almost Obscene. MAD Magazine’s Senior Editor, Raiola is a very funny man. In fact, I haven’t laughed so hard or so much in a very long time. And he’s not just funny. He’s smart, erudite and extremely well informed. Barbara Pitcher directed the updated version of the show that will be given one more performance at the Byrdcliffe Theater Sunday, August 26, at 8 pm. If you haven’t seen Almost Obscene, don’t miss the opportunity.
Short, compact, with a receding hairline and expressive features, Raiola opens his one-man show from a seated position, reading aloud a beautifully written passage that sounds like a philosophical quote from the Tao Te Ching. In fact, Raiola informs us, it’s from Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, a book that was banned as obscene in this country for 27 years. A self-proclaimed fan of Miller and the Tao, Raiola closes the book and launches into a highly energized 80-minute performance covering a wide range of contemporary topics and concerns.
“My intention today,” Raiola announces, “is to completely un-censor myself…No word – real or made up – is off limits.” He proceeds to shock us with a rap about every taboo word in the language including the “n” word, the “f” word and the “c” word (which he considers to be the most forbidden word in the language). “Banning words doesn’t solve problems,” he asserts, demonstrating the truth of his argument by suggesting that we simply ban the word “war” and see what happens.
Moving around the stage like an animated cartoon figure straight out of a MAD Magazine comic strip, Raiola never fails to hold our attention – no mean feat in a one-person show. Whatever the topic of his rap, he’s in perpetual motion, arms flailing and punching, legs skipping and jumping. Hilarious sound effects decorate his shtick. Even though he’s dealing with serious topics, his presentation is so silly and lively that we cannot help but laugh.
Like Miller, Raiola’s material is primarily autobiographical, unflinchingly honest and thought provoking. Smoothly segueing between the themes of censorship and his fear or organized religion, which started as a child in Catholic school, Raiola tells the story of the Virgin Mary sighted by a southern lady in a grilled cheese sandwich that sold on e-Bay for 28 grand. After satirizing this occurrence in one of his columns by putting the prophet Mohammed in a pancake, Raiola fears retaliation by Islamic fundamentalists and sings a plaintive blues song, “Don’t You Put No Fatwa On Me.” The more emotional intensity Raiola pours into his song, and he really gets down, the more the audience laughs at his plight.
Raiola seamlessly moves on to other issues: national security, cell phones, being put on hold, the war, President Bush, marketing of pharmaceuticals, until he ends his show with a rap about the relative weight of holy books, theorizing that the lightest books with the fewest number of pages are the most profound. A quote from the Tao signals Raiola to end the show. Bravos from the audience on Saturday afternoon, August 25, greeted his curtain call.