2015 Edmonton Fringe Review: Becoming Banksy

It's an old story, really. Thanks to a mistaken identity, a man gets a chance to pretend to be somebody who has achieved everything he always wished he could, and we watch as the world of lies starts snowballing out of control.

It's the plot of The Secret of My Success, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, half the episodes of Fawlty Towers, and several scenes in Twelfth Night. It's also the central theme to Becoming Banksy, where a failed British painter travels to New York City at the same time as one the world's most famous guerrilla artist, and hilarity ensues.

We meet Michael Banks (David Michaels) in England, where everybody from his boss to his mother phones him up to kick him when he's down. His wife has left him, and just as the divorce papers are finalized he decides to run away to New York for 31 days (we're unsure why he doesn't just say "a month") and rediscover himself as a person, or as an artist, or whatever. He even takes his (mounted on canvas) landscape painting with him on the trip, the Travelocity Gnome to his sad and lonely existence. Unfortunately for Michael, he's not the only British painter Stateside for 31 days: Banksy himself is doing a "31 day" art tour of New York City where he plans to paint on random buildings and make his mark on Gotham. Immediately at the hotel, the Banksy fangirl at the counter wonders if "Mr. Banks" isn't the famed anarchist here on the sly. Unfortunately, Banks hates Banksy and loves landscapes, a sensible position which the modern world of art doesn't agree with. He hates Banksy's style, his approach, his art, and (more critically) his success.

Banks has a horrible time in New York City, which is a staple of fiction and makes me wonder who all these people are who have a horrible time in NYC. Banks even talks about the horrors of Times Square, and while it's definitely not my favourite place in town (last time I was hauled into the M&M Store, for crying out loud) it's not a cesspool of human despair. Was this play written in the 1970s when NYC was a dangerous hellhole, Times Square was a disgusting place of hookers and human misery, and Banksy didn't exist yet? It might have been, I suppose. Also a weird cab ride from the airport immediately set my spidey senses ablaze, as the cab driver described the Freedom Tower as being "to your left". The Freedom Tower is in the southwest corner of Manhattan Island and typically far from any hotels. Even if Banks landed at JFK and decided not to take the A line (don't laugh, I've seen it) how does the World Trade Center end up on his left? Did the cab driver take the Shore Parkway? That's literally the only way you'd see it to your left (even on the Brooklyn Bridge headed to Park Row you'd only see the tip of it incredibly briefly). Little details like that will kill the show when it makes its New York debut later this year. Trust me, I won't be the only person confused by the geography.

Late one night, a drunken Banks stumbles upon a wall and decides to deface it by drawing a landscape on it. The next day, the same wall has a complete Banksy piece of artwork on it, and an edited video hits YouTube showing Banks -- but not Banksy, who the audience sees previously writing on the same wall -- putting the final touches on the newest piece of guerrilla street art. This being the day of the human search engine (as Trudeau's coat hanger loving MP wannabe also discovered this week) by the time Banks even knows he's was videotaped, the press know everything about him. Back in England, his mother has started capitalizing on his mistaken identity to the point of selling his belongings to cover her gambling problem. Michael Bank's life will never be the same again.

This is the point of the mistaken identity plot where the character has to choose between coming clean right away and clearing the air, or running with the opportunity to see what personal benefits he can extract from them. That's where I tend to not like these mistaken identity plots. Obviously, anybody even vaguely rational would chose the former, as the odds of getting away with this for the rest of history (or at least, your life) is roughly zero. There may be some hugely successful con men who have never been discovered (therefore, no way for us to know about them), but it's hard to envision a mechanism by which it will always work. By contrast, we know lots of failed con men. In a sense, we've just had one this year with Bill Cosby, or (to a lesser extent) Shaun King and Rachel Dolezal. Whether by fluke or by design, they are believed to be somebody they aren't and eventually don't get away with it. The sensible option for any person in the real world is to reject the mistaken identity as fast as possible. Unfortunately, if the character in a dramatic work picks this option, the story is over. The nightly news guy calls about being Banksy, Banks says "no, I was just drunk and did some graffiti", and the play's over. Banks probably wouldn't even have to pay a fine. All this play would have been is a little ten minute skit about a British guy stuck in NYC getting over his wife leaving him and being miserable. Therefore, for the story to progress at all, the character has to take the other fork in the road. Unfortunately, as I mentioned above, this decision is a really really dumb one; the story requires our characters to act in a way that isn't particularly well motivated, and I for one am uncomfortable watching characters who act in a stupid nearsighted way just to keep the plot contrivances going. It's why I don't like Friends and why The Big Bang Theory went downhill fast in Season 4. Therefore, as in all mistaken identity plots, I had to resist the urge to scream down to David Michaels (who, by the way, looks a lot like Patrick McKenna) "no! don't do it! you can't possibly get away with this!"

At this point it goes on the usual little roller coaster: he starts getting treated differently, getting the Derek Jeter treatment at the local deli and the chance to bone the horny hotel clerk. He's a media darling, getting to talk about his favourite subject (landscape paintings) and experiencing the fame and fortune he thought he deserved. His boss will pay him just to send a tweet about women's perfume. Everything goes swimmingly except that his mother is racking up more and more debts as she sells everything "Banksy" ever had...except for the landscape paintings, which hilariously nobody still wants to buy. It's an enjoyable enough little segment, and Michael really puts a bit of entitlement-fuelled joy into his performance here. We really get the sense that Banks is letting himself get caught up in believing that he really is the famous transgressive artist. Unfortunately, the real Banksy is still out there, and briefly appears to declare war on the imposter.

And so, Michael Banks is exposed...Banksy creates another art exhibit on the walls of Yankee Stadium while Banks and the TV reporter are drinking at a bar. The expose starts up immediately: Banks gets a "gotcha" interview of "you aren't really Banksy" while Banks' mother humiliates him in a separate interview in the U.K. As Banks' 31 days in New York come to a bitter conclusion, he's a broken man. His wife phones to have a heartfelt moment, but at the end reminds him that she isn't coming back. He's a broken man: fired from his job, in worse financial state than he started at, and now his own mother wants nothing to do with him (now that he's outlived his usefulness to her). Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall. Banks just isn't a good enough artist, "good enough" here being commercial viable. He's no Banksy.

But what of Banksy? For a play with his name in the title, the work doesn't really have much -- if anything -- to say about the man or his craft. He's mysterious and famous, his fame and his mystery feeding upon each other to build the legend that leaves him well known enough that 5/7 people I was out with over the weekend knew who he was. As for his political and social commentary though...nothing was really said at all. Being as somebody who isn't even remotely a fan of the artist and who is obviously uninterested in playing up a left-wing graffiti artist. We have enough of those already, and scum of the earth doesn't seem to properly encapsulate it. Banksy isn't really important to this story, other than the fact that he's well known and anonymous. This script could be changed to Becoming Feynman and Coulter's Love Child with not a whole lot of rewriting required. If there was a Tory Banksy somewhere in England, this play could have been about him word for word: the politics of the real Banksy are irrelevent. It could be a play about becoming any anonymous individual, really: from Math Bass to Arkas. Since Banksy makes no difference to the structure of the play (save the gag at the very end) the play ends up a disappointing missed opportunity. Banksy serves more as a lure to get the audience in the door than a foil against Banks and a way to explore anything related to the themes in Banksy's art: whether to praise it or critique it. Personally, I'd critique the hell out of it: Banksy's famous Simpsons "couch gag" slammed capitalism and South Korean sweatshops which the "sweatshop" workers themselves scoffed at as unrealistic propganda more resembling the "anti-corporate" and "anti-fascist" world of North Korea. Like so many wealthy liberals, Banksy wouldn't want to live in (and wouldn't succeed under) the world he apparently wants to create. In fact, like all graffiti Banksy isn't even particularly original: The Simpsons made the South Korean sweatshop joke in 1992, and with way more bite and (perhaps worth mentioning) being actually funny. Banksy it appears has a giant issue with taking himself far too seriously, as L'Affaire John Robertson goes to show, and it would have been very fun and subversive for the play to poke that character flaw with a giant stick. Instead, the play does nothing with Banksy at all, and it's weaker for it (though I'm unsure if praising him more than it already does would make it any better).

As a result this is a fairly basic rise and fall story involving our protagonist. Michaels is fairly steady with this character, though he doesn't do much to elevate the material except when he's griping about New York. He also makes the appropriate facial contortions when he's shown listening to the variety of increasingly wacky voicemails he receives from his mother. Of course, Banks is the straight man in this story which leaves it up to his costar, Jamil Chokachi, to ham the other roles up. More on him in a moment. The problem with Michaels' straight-man take on the role is that we not only expect him to be a creative (though straight-laced) painter but also able to at least semi-convincingly be believable as Banksy. It also requires Chokachi to work twice as hard at putting energy into his characters, with occasionally disastrous results. Chokachi plays the female hotel clerk like the absolutely most flaming fudge packer on the planet, his hilariously faggy body expressions and his lisp that makes the "steam escaping" scene from Blazing Saddles look like nothing. He does do decent work with a couple of the characters, particularly Banks' mother and the guy who runs the New York Yankee themed deli. Others are fairly blatant caricatures which again only exist to contrast and entertain in reaction to Michaels' dull portrayal of...Michael. Chokachi does get a couple chances to work with the other recurring gags: breaking the fourth wall as Banks receives voicemails regarding plot points that have just occurred which the phoning character should have no way of knowing about, drawing attention to the low budget effects such as the airplane and the taxicab, and a decent joke that Michaels will walk off stage entirely only for the director to force Chokachi to go move some furniture around while the "talent" remains off-stage...and typically the furniture is moved such a small distance to be only there to torture the actor. It's a little bit of this that helps this play have some life, but the disappointment in the way it handles the potential of its setup and Chokachi's bizarre method of playing the female characters (lampshaded when Chokachi plays a male character who is also an effeminate desk clerk at the hotel) keeps this play from being anything more than a disappointment. Almost a dozen people walked out in the first 20 minutes, if that helps give you a sense of how this play isn't what people hoped for.

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