Review: ”Jitters” at the Orlando Fringe Festival.

Are you a drifter or a dreamer? If you're like Bernie O'Brien, the author of the play ''Jitters,'' you could be a little of both. (Photo by Michael Freeman).

ORLANDO – Bernie O’Brien seems like the embodiment of something that every major city has: the neighborhood guy who can walk into the local bar, is instantly recognized by everyone, and who dominates the entire room with what becomes a streaming dialogue about his latest adventures and observations.
He’s good with a quip, engagingly animated, can thunder with indignation one minute, then smile and laugh at his own personal foibles the next. If you’re sitting there at the bar, relaxing and having yourself a beer, and the neighborhood character walks in and starts his routine, you may find yourself endlessly fascinated by his tall tales of the day. Maybe you even look forward to hearing it.
What’s unique about an event like the Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival is the way it brings out special talent – including those who write and perform their own plays, as a one man or one woman show that offers a single performer on stage, with the undeniable ability to be positively spellbinding.
I have no idea if Bernie O’Brien, who wrote and performs ”Jitters,’’ was at one time a neighborhood character who could charm the pants off his buddies at the local bar, but he definitely seems to fit the part, the way he can grab your attention and hold it as he launches into his nearly hour-long (but never dull) monologue. Like those neighborhood talkers who relish a good audience, the writer and actor known as Bernie O’Brien seems to enjoy doing the exact same thing.
With good reason, I might add. O’Brien’s play is now being performed in the Patron’s Room at the Lowndes Shakespeare Theatre, as part of the 21st Annual Orlando Fringe Festival. In a competitive environment, with more than 70 shows to pick from, the 68-year-old O’Brien delivers a real gem with his nostalgic walk down memory lane.
The setting is Forest Hills, Boston, O’Brien’s birthplace. Now retired and living in Florida, he returns there in December 2011 to visit Concannon’s Tavern, the meeting house for the entire neighborhood. There’s a Christmas tree in the corner, but otherwise the mood is a bit somber; the neighbors had gathered that morning to bury one of their own on a frigid winter day. Back at the tavern, O’Brien begins talking to all the fellas, with a nod to the man whose memories brought them all together that day, their pal Jitters.
”Right over at that table, that’s where Jitters used to drink,’’ O’Brien says. ”He died young, at age 32.”
He will truly be missed, O’Brien says, noting that Jitters ”was like the conscience of Forest Hills.”
But his tales, like those of any a good storyteller, soon head off in a wide variety of directions. He touches on current events (”Will we ever get the mugshot for Martha Stewart?’’ he wonders), comparisons between life in Boston and retirement in Mount Dora (“Do I miss anything up there in Boston?’’ he asks, as he muses on recollections of lugging himself over to Home Depot to buy a snow shovel), and tidbits about the kind of things that happen in every urban neighborhood – like the moments when somebody offers you a piece of advice that you’d never heard before, and that make you stop and go …. Hmmm.
For O’Brien, that moment comes when a buddy suggests that if he wants to look younger, he should try applying Preparation H Hemorrhoid cream onto his face to rejuvenate his aging, wrinkled skin. In urban neighborhoods, when buddies offer tips like that, your immediate instinct is to trust them and believe every word they say, which is why Bernie is soon out buying a tube of the rectal cream with high hopes.
It’s one of the funnier stories in ”Jitters,’’ though to be truthful, like any good tavern talker, O’Brien rarely runs out of entertaining sagas to dish out. He’s a bit like the Energizer Bunny: once you wind him up, he just keeps going, and going.
With his thick Bahhh-stun accent, O’Brien seems every bit like a man set in a distinct time and place. He’s often casting a quizzical eye on the ways in which society has changed from his younger days — not to be judgemental or critical, per se, more curious and puzzled. One of his most hilarious bits is when he describes his full throttle leap into the world of modern feminism, when he attends a performance of the hit play ”The Vagina Monologues’’ and discovers that being one of the few males in the theater can be quite a surprising experience indeed. He’s taken aback when the show starts with an announcement that there will be no intermission – an odd decision, he ponders, since his life experience has taught him that women frequently need a ”pitstop’’ along the way to … wherever. And when the women in the audience feel inspired by the play to begin loudly chanting a word not used in polite conversation, it’s yet another, side-splittingly funny moment for the old Irish rogue.
He also has a lot of fun with a story about a group of bikers, a swimming pool, some water-cleaning chemicals, and “nutbags’’ …. which made me realize that if O’Brien does in fact like to haunt local taverns and spin tall yarns, I need to figure out where he regularly hangs out. He’s charming, funny, and engaging from start to finish.
At the start of ”Jitters,’’ before coming out onto the mostly bare stage, O’Brien’s voiceover narration explains to us one of his core beliefs: that ”within each person we have two distinct personalities,’’ the Dreamer with the great imagination, and the Drifter, who throws cold water on everything.
O’Brien alternates between the two, making them seem both realistic and instantly recognizable in others we know – and, at certain times, in ourselves. He’s a gifted storyteller and a charming tavern talker. His show, which has additional performances on Monday at 7 p.m., Wednesday at 5:15 p.m., next Saturday May 26 at 5:45 p.m., and on Sunday, May 27 at 12:45 p.m., is not one you’ll want to miss.
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