Justin Purvis has a story to tell. And it begins with Fringe.
Conceived over a few offhanded “what-ifs” and a couple of drinks under last year’s beer tent, this one-man stand up improvisational comedy piece is honest and humble.
With great wit, Purvis is his own warm-up and main attraction. He is a master story teller, making the audience feel as though it is part of a conversation, rather than a simple spectator to a rehearsed piece. The show itself begins with a random word from the audience (last night it was “beer”), leading to a hilarious anecdote about his family in Germany.
Yet the piece is not without purpose. At 13, Purvis was diagnosed with a rare eye disease called “choroideremia” and was told that, by age 40, he’d be blind. It is, at its heart, the story of a man overcoming adversity — learning how to do so with some 27-years advanced notice.
Yet it comes sprinkled on top of terrific improvisational comedy and remarkable storytelling. As with the genesis of the show itself, it feels more like you and Purvis are at a table cracking jokes – there was much two-way banter with members of the audience throughout the piece – than watching traditional standup. It was a conversation.
The downside to this was the occasionally dichotomous reaction between the humor that glues the show, and the heartbreaking story that serves as its foundation. Laughter occasionally turned nervous when he touched on a failed marriage, as well as an ironic and devastating family tragedy. There were moments when, without warning, Purvis would switch from humorous to serious, causing occasional bouts of misguided laughter from over-energetic audience members who hadn’t noticed.
Though perhaps this is simply part of his story. He is a man approaching blindness, seeing the world through what he calls his narrowing “doughnut-hole” vision. As things close in, he fights to keep up his humor, and encourages you to keep yours as well. Purvis has a gift for making a tragic story feel comfortable, a room feel at-ease, and a performance feel like a conversation. It is little wonder the show was conceived at a cocktail table, and even less so that it was conceived at Fringe. Purvis is at home with this crowd, and was an instant hit.
The only risk in seeing this show is in shortchanging it for simple comedy. It is that, and more.
Hysterical Blindness has 5 peformances, closing July 27, 2012, at Caos on F, 923 F St NW Washington, DC.
Details and tickets