“From henceforth, we will refer to railroads as Mass Transit for Common Criminals and Livestock,” declared The Encyclopedia Show’s “fact-checker” at its most recent performance. An eclectic mix of the funny and the serious, the silly and the profound, The Encyclopedia Show escapes categorization. Instead, the show might best be described as a bizarre amalgam of a comedy skit, academic lecture, musical, poetry slam, and play.
Curated and hosted by performance artists Robbie Q. Telfer and Shanny Jean Maney, The Encyclopedia Show employs the talents of artists and experts from a wide variety of fields in order to create a “verbal encyclopedia entry” on a random topic chosen each month. Themes of past performances have ranged from bears to hockey to the periodic table of the elements. When asked by Time Out Chicago what inspired him and co-host Shanny Jean Maney to create The Encyclopedia Show, host Robbie Q. Telfer explained, “We saw a hole in the Chicago poetry scene that Slam couldn’t fill.” The hosts describe their mission as an attempt “to build an age-integrated community cultivating accidental knowledge and irreverent loving kindness,” and “to chafe against logic and proof, find meaning in obfuscation, and wrest truth from fact once and for all.” Founded in December 2008, The Encyclopedia Show has given performances in Chicago, Vancouver, Austin, Oklahoma City, and Providence. In 2009, the show won the Orgie Theatre Award for Best Curator/Creation.
This month’s topic was the railroad. Like each performance of The Encyclopedia Show, last Wednesday’s performance was a mash-up of presentations, interviews, and exhibitions by artists and experts from various disciplines. Acts ranged from a poetry reading by Abigail Vic to a panel discussion of railroad experts to a ghost-story telling by Evan Chung.
Unfortunately, the assorted mix of acts gave the show an unpleasantly chaotic feel at the beginning, as hosts Shanny Jean Maney and Robbie Q. Telfer segued rather awkwardly from an uninspiring “hoedown” opening musical act to the introduction of their topic: “The Railroad.” However, as the show gained momentum, the chaos settled into a delightfully absurd and entertaining performance. Outlandishly silly acts juxtaposed with more serious, heartfelt pieces kept audience members engaged and on their toes. Many moments in the show had the audience in convulsions of laughter; not even the most somber of audience members could keep a straight face during the interview with The-Little-Engine-Who-Could and his homeless hobo lover. Throughout the performance, hosts exchanged frivolous, tongue-in-cheek remarks with the audience that created a mood of warmth and familiarity between the audience and the actors. It oftentimes felt as though I was engaging in jovial conversation with friends rather than watching performers on stage. I certainly felt the joys of the show’s professed community of “accidental knowledge and irreverent loving kindness” throughout the performance.
Nevertheless, at times, the cast seemed to go a little too far in their attempts to defy logic. While most of the acts were witty and entertaining, some left audience members scratching their heads, unsure whether to laugh or to wince. Not quite funny, but too terribly absurd to be appreciated for artistry, a few acts felt like sitting through a friend’s embarrassingly bad karaoke performance: You don’t want to stay, but you can’t leave. But these bizarre acts were fortunately few and far between.
Though not perfect, The Encyclopedia Show ultimately makes for a quirky, humorous, and very entertaining performance. Not all the jokes quite landed, but this derailed yet determined comedy show always went full-speed ahead.