Norman Normal Saves the World

Local Arts Reviews

Norman Normal Saves the World:

The Geek Breaks Out!

The Vortex, through Aug. 17

Running Time: 1 hr, 15 min

It sounds simple enough: Norman Normal's cousin Truman, detested rival and flatulent countergeek to Norman's own sinus-clearing, "I could kill you right now" über-geek, is moving into the Normal household as the two students conclude their senior year at Holy Cross High. But then Truman is not just moving into the house; he is sharing Norman's room. And to say that the two can't abide each other is an understatement unworthy of the levels of mutual detestation shared by cousins vying for class valedictorian, class-rank bragging rights, and a variety of action figures. Simple earthling rivalries don't, for instance, include an intergalactic -- nay, interdimensional struggle for clan supremacy. For, you see, Norman is the supposed heir to the empire, and cousin Truman plans to pre-empt Norman's birthright. Offing Norman places cousin Truman in line for succession. It's all falling into place (here, rub hands maniacally and fart) like a villainous plot in one of the summer's sci-fi blockbuster movies.

Before you dismiss all this geeks-gone-bad skullduggery as just some high school nerds' imaginations run (odoriferously) amok, spend a humorous hour-plus evening in the excellent company of writer/performer Rob Nash, who returns to Austin with this latest installment of his Holy Cross Sucks! series. Nash possesses a dynamic solo performance style that fairly crowds the stage with eccentric yet oddly familiar folk, and he's mastered the blending of screwball comedy with tender character insights to create a sort of loving caricature of the foibles of high school outcasts, nerds, class clowns, the most-popular kids -- and their teachers, families, and other sundry adults. The premise that begins Norman's story may seem unbelievable, but by the end, well, who could argue that it's that far-fetched?

Nash's art is in the insta-characterization. He tells his story through characters' "dialogues," and we learn all sorts of things from "scenes" incorporating many major players, as well as from snippets of phone conversations between girlfriends, a lovers' quarrel between a gay teacher with AIDS and his lover, and the one-liners of a series of teachers addressing classroom after classroom of disinterested students. In this episode of Nash's ongoing saga, we also get visitations by denizens of other worlds, plus a lot of Norman's daily grind: visits to his shrink, dead-end conversations with his mother, pleas to his English teacher, and the frequent confrontations with evil cousin Truman. Nash packs loads of fun stuff into his plays, yet he never seems hurried as a performer. His ease at the instant character switch is consummate; he is a joy to watch.

This is volume six of the Holy Cross Sucks! quadrilogy: If you're counting, yes, you need to start using the fingers of your other hand. In the original quartet of plays, Nash took his three heroes -- Ben, Johnny, and George -- through the myriad rites of passage of your almost-typical suburban Houston high school of the parochial variety. Norman Normal was the boys' weird geek friend, orbiting the three throughout most of their escapades; now he has his "breakout" vehicle. What the uninitiated playgoer will undoubtedly sense but miss are the incredible number of details from the previous Holy Cross plays hinted at in Nash's rapid bursts of dialogue -- the histories, the idiosyncrasies, all the time-honed depth of Norman and the other couple of dozen characters who people this world. A word here or there links to a chunk of story from a previous play, eliciting titters from the knowledgeable, if not outright laughter. There is definitely something to have been gained by paying attention in Nash's earlier classrooms. Still, for the neophytes -- the freshmen, if you will -- Nash's clarity in characterization, his chameleon comic abilities, not to mention his ever-sharp wit and this particular story's absurd hilarity, make Norman's breakout play a fine summer blockbuster of its own.

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Norman Normal Saves the World, Rob Nash, The Vortex, Holy Cross Sucks!

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