Leave your cell phones on, ladies and gentlemen, but keep in mind that if that phone should ring, you will be "instantaneously put to death." So begins the preshow announcement in Hi!, Amber Martin's high-voltage, one-woman, eight-character study. Delivered in a sweet and syrupy tone and dripping with knowing sarcasm, the announcement, like the show, leaves us mildly uncomfortable, slightly amused, and wondering just what might happen next. Winner of the Portland (Ore.) Drammy Award for Best Solo Performance in 2003, Martin has taken her eccentric cast of characters on the road in a show that works as comedy, tragedy, performance art, and mockumentary. The exhilaration of Hi! lies in its complete unpredictability. Martin has woven the lives of seemingly disparate characters into one volcanic whole.
In the smart style of Christopher Guest's mockumentary films (Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show), she gives us brief glimpses into characters who are passionate about communicating who they are. And like many of Guest's films, Martin almost dares us to laugh. Beneath the easy jokes, there is an undercurrent of pathos and serious truth.
Her palette of women includes a Bible-banging Christian at a religious revival, a country music devotee at a desolate Southern burger joint, a faded rock star who has to have her voice box removed after singing like Alice Cooper, and a bitter nightclub singer at a Vegas club performing Whitney Houston covers. The characters have all fallen short of greatness; like "B" list celebrities, they are out of the limelight, a step or two (or four) away from the big time. Martin says they all "seek salvation" in their own way, and she argues for the importance of even the most peripheral of stories. She delivers honest and incandescent snapshots of each character, forcing us to focus on each individual, no matter how eccentric. It is important, she suggests, to really listen to what people have to say.
Her comic work can be likened to that of Amy Sedaris, who is similarly unafraid of contorting herself into appalling grotesques to make a statement about character. Martin makes the process behind these contortions visible by "performing" her costume changes onstage, applying makeup as she sings, hums, dances, or otherwise gyrates to a seamlessly spectacular soundtrack. The set resembles a child's dress-up closet, with coat racks full of costumes and a dressing table lined with wigs and makeup. Director Howie Baggadonutz utilizes the set and space to its full capacity as Martin turns her body into a canvas, showing us the many possible evolutions of being human.
With Martin serving as writer, producer, performer, and sound designer, Hi! is clearly a labor of love. She has an incredibly expressive, rangy voice, and she brings a jaw-dropping precision to her characters' physicality. No matter what she is doing, she is thoroughly enjoyable to watch onstage.
Still, if you are looking for traditional narration, Hi! may not be the show for you. But if you enjoy ballsy, entertaining social commentary wrapped in stunning characterization, go have a look at Martin's dazzling array of faces. When she finally takes her curtain call, she is so utterly unrecognizable from her many guises that you'll find yourself asking, "Wait a second, who is that?" And you'll definitely be glad you left that cell phone off.