Story posted December 05, 2005
John Menke ’06 couldn’t believe how much his audience laughed. And his audience couldn’t believe a word he said, which is probably a good thing, considering that Menke’s “one-man show” was called The Embellisher* … *Liar. He describes it as “like stand-up, with a pretty hat.”
Menke burst into the packed Wish Theater on November 18 announcing that he was coming clean about a lifetime of lies, half-truths and embellishments. Every time he told a new lie on stage, “Agnes,” played by Ben Jolissaint ’ 05 – who, in a light blue dress, looked like Al Franken in drag – rang a small bell.
“There’s a blindingly obvious lie,” Menke declared, after “Agnes” started banging the bell repeatedly. “This is not a one-man show!”
And so began a hyperactive, hilarious celebration of the lie, including re-enactments of job interviews, a presentation of “Liars from History,” the six rules of lying and a few confessions to his mother, who was in the audience. Or so he said.
Menke’s performance was the culmination of Studio 305, a new theater seminar class created to accommodate an overflow of good but-not-fully-developed ideas students had for independent study projects in theater.
“I wanted to perform something I could say was my own,” Menke said. “I had the idea of lying because it’s something relatable.”
It was also true. Well, partly.
“The truth-to-untruth ratio is about 82 percent,” he said. “I was lying about lying and embellishing the embellishment.”
An economics major, Menke had taken several theater classes, but had performed on stage only once, two weeks prior to “The Embellisher.” He declared a theater minor one week later. Now, with the encouragement of Davis Robinson, associate professor of theater, he’s considering a career as a performer.
“His show was really frenzied, like Robin Williams, but he’s closer to Steve Martin in style,” Robinson said. “He has that kind of appeal, that kind of charm that Steve Martin has. He’s got such good details in his material, he doesn’t need to be that frenzied.”
“He has a lot of talent as a natural performer, but he’s also a good writer,” Robinson said. “He can go directly to ‘Go.’”
Menke said he had the entire script written out in front of him, and he occasionally referred to the stack of pages on a table onstage. But he got so wound up during the performance that he kept losing his place and skipping parts, forcing him and Jolissaint to improvise.
“We rehearsed in front of no audience for two weeks,” Menke said. “We thought it was the most boring thing. I got sick of the material; I didn’t even want to do it.”
Come show time, he still wasn’t convinced.
“I was thinking, ‘I can’t believe people are laughing!’” he said. “It was an odd experience. I was feeding off their energy. I was running on nervous energy, a Red Bull, and a slice of bread.”
His audience responded with a standing ovation.
“I used to embellish a lot,” he confessed. “This summer, I really did go to a magazine in New York – New York Cool – and told them I had graduated from college. Well, I didn’t actually tell them that. I said I’d been at Bowdoin; I implied that I had graduated.”
He got the job.
“When I was working in New York, I’d walk past these lines of people waiting for auditions,” he said. “I had to step over them. I had all the incentive not to go into that field.
“But then Davis said, ‘You should take this on the road. ’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I should take it on the road! … Uh, what does that mean, exactly?”
For the time being, Menke plans to work with Jolissaint to refine the show while he finishes his degree in economics.
“My next project will be something serious, just to keep my brain intact,” he said.
Or so he says.