The Bitter Poet's long and winding road to comedy 

No Aftertaste

It's not that the promos are wrong: You watch the act on YouTube, and people are laughing in the audience, and the character on stage in the pointy red shoes is certainly funny.

So maybe it's the reputation of Piccolo Fringe that creates the context of expectation for the Bitter Poet. Fringe is wild, gutsy improv, comedy that pushes boundaries for the sake of laughs, even uncomfortable laughs.

The Bitter Poet is a 2009 Fringe offering with an edgy reputation, a New York pedigree and words like "cynical" and "satiric" and "darkly humorous" and "Lou Reed meets William Shatner" floating around it.

It all sounds very high-concept stand-up, like the Unknown Comic or Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, or even Andy Kaufman in his wrestling days. It's a character doing comedy, ranting about relationships, and singing songs, and it's Piccolo Fringe. Do the math.

Only you watch these videos of actor Kevin Draine working a room as the Bitter Poet, and you notice something after a few minutes: He's not just being funny. He just performed a serious poem about a woman, and there wasn't anything in there that remotely resembled a punchline.

Which, as any performer will tell you, is one very risky act when you're standing in front of a room full of people who've come out to laugh.

"As a writer, the idea was to embody the character rather than make a joke," Draine said by telephone from his Upper West Side apartment. "The intention is to be humorous, but I wanted to fully engage the character. It's theater. There's a range of reactions the audience can take from it."

If that sounds like an unusual approach to what can pretty easily be called a comedy act, it should come as no surprise that Draine's bio is equally quirked.

He's a South Carolina native who might have stuck with his career as a banker in Columbia if a role in a community theater production hadn't led him to a part in a made-for-TV movie. That led to a career change, a move to New York, and — eventually — a night at a place called the Cucuaracha Warehouse Theatre.

Draine saw actors trying things he'd never considered at the Cucuaracha, and he started tending bar and hanging out just to become part of its rapidly morphing scene. Eventually, he wrote his own bits to perform there, and his Bitter Poet persona began its development on the warehouse stage. He toured, put together a band, worked clubs around the city.

"People just seemed to respond right away."

If the character's image isn't quite the stereotype of a black-beret beatnik ("All poets want to be rock stars," Draine explains), the act isn't purely bitter, either.

Even the bits about failed relationships and the elaborate gambits of love among the creative classes carry an underlying romanticism, as if the satire and cynicism mask a resilient sensitivity. And when he whips out a poem that's really a poem, right in the middle of a funny set, the juxtaposition smacks your forehead.

So where does this show fit into this year's Fringe lineup? Fringe organizers are calling it the year's most avant-garde production. Draine balks gently.

"I don't think of it as experimental," he said. "It's more like this category-blending thing."

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