PHYZGIG South is a festival that celebrates vaudeville and physical theater. It will leave audience members in wonderment and also wondering whether such a classic form of entertainment can survive.
The festival began in Portland, Maine, in 1997 when Avner the Eccentric, a world-renowned master of comedy, approached Michael Levine to ask if he could use his Oak Street Theatre to perform. Levine, who is producing director of Acorn Productions, accepted, and Avner’s performance became a yearly event. As its popularity grew, so did the surrounding acts, until Levine realized they needed to have a full-fledged festival. For a name, they chose PHYZGIG, which is a play on the word fizgig, which means fireworks. Levine changed it to “phy” as an homage to physical performing, which is the focal point of the show.
Performers descend on Maine each winter from all across the country and world. But half the performers are local as well. Their skills are varied and include juggling, acrobatics, clowning, magic and slapstick comedy. The festival gives the performers a chance to see each other and watch other shows. Levine said typically they are out on the road by themselves and might not have time for camaraderie.
“The show really appeals to audiences,” Levine said. “It is not the type of performance that is regularly seen.”
Its popularity made it ripe to grow and the vaudeville community is a close-knit one. Avner’s wife, Julie Goell, is a comedian who has performed at the Pontine Theatre in Portsmouth several times. At one performance three years ago, Avner talked with the theater’s artistic directors, M. Marguerite Mathews and Greg Gathers. He said Portsmouth was such a short commute from Portland that many of the performers would love picking up an extra show during the week. Thus PHYZGIG South was born.
This year the performances will run from Dec. 26 through Dec. 30, beginning at 2 p.m. Mathews said each performance would show between two and four performers depending on availability. She said if two performers performed it would take about an hour and a half. These performers have such colorful names as Drew the Fool and Double Vision’ Pantomonium.
“Having the shows at the time of year we do really works,” Mathews said. “Christmas is over and all the presents have been opened but family is still around looking for something to do. This show is great because it appeals to everyone from the youngest kid to the oldest.”
While the vaudeville community is not huge, it is thriving in Maine, according to Mathews. She said in 1972, Tony Montanaro founded the Celebration Barn, which developed into a famous theater for mime, improvisation and storytelling. Many entertainers performing today are graduates of that school. Mathews and Montanaro began their training together years ago in Paris.
Mathews admitted physical and alternative theater was much more popular when she was starting out because of the influence of Marcel Marceau, the French actor and mime. While vaudeville may not be thriving it is certainly surviving as many young performers are trying it out each year. She said Cirque du Soleil has inspired many people.
Her thoughts were validated by Levine, who said they try to have a good mix of young and seasoned performers. He believed the older ones could act as mentors. And while vaudeville-style shows are not as abundant this time of year as say, A Christmas Carol, Levine said they still get way more applications from performers than they can accept.
“We want to make sure we present the best possible talent,” Levine said. “We think we’ve done that.”