For two and a half years, the Weekly Revue has been declaring itself the anti-YouTube. While the website has nearly infinite material and creates tangential connections between people, it’s a passive experience usually watched alone; the Revue’s mission is to offer the same wide range of content while bringing people together. In West Philly basements, Fishtown lofts and a Gayborhood bookstore, Toby David—actor, professional Master of Ceremonies and Eastern State Penitentiary tour guide—has created a live show in which entertainment is not just varied, unexpected and often homemade, but a participatory, shared experience for audience and performers.
“The Weekly Revue is the finest variety that I can find designed to entertain, edify and romance the people,” David says. “I need people to be together, in a room, having an experience with everybody around them.”
Think of it as a curated open mic, or a talent show minus the competition—a series of performances and presentations ranging in tone from breezy and fun to complex and serious. The same show might feature five minutes of coupon-related standup and an hourlong presentation on working for military forces in Iraq’s Green Zone.
The Weekly Revue came screaming into the world in early 2008 in the musty basement of a Hazel Avenue rowhouse. Early shows were just friends showing off their talents in a setting where the sharing of the experience was just as important as the experience itself.
Though the Revue’s audience is also a stable of frequent performers, diversity is the key to putting together an engaging roster of players each month.
“If we’ve never had it before, then we wanna have it,” David says. “So when we can get the magician, we want the magician. When we can get the mouth puppets, we need the mouth puppets.” (A video of “mouth puppets,” tiny things by Puppetyranny’s Leslie Rogers that use a human mouth as a stage, was a hit.) “We need what we haven’t had. We need what people need to see, which is the range, the variety. For me, it’s about quality and expansion.”
With so many acts at each monthly show (the Revue is weekly in name only), subject matter is wide-ranging, but quality is generally high. One performer hung a shocking total of seven spoons from her face at once. Other shows presented lessons on lockpicking and a birth Q&A from a doula. In an uncanny moment, an electrode-capped David demonstrated brain-computer interface technology by using only his brainwaves to type a message to the audience.
Lineups don’t want for more traditional entertainment, though. Filmmakers like Matthew Lessner and Court 13’s Benh Zeitlin have presented award-winning works. And there’s always music, most recently in the form of house band Los Culeros—musicians Joe Kille and Emiliano Rodriguez, equipped with a variety of stringed instruments.
The jumbled assortment of entertainment options needs an organizer, and that’s where David takes the reins as MC and storyteller. Each show has a theme title—“Prescription Cake,” for example—related to each act by his free-associative monologues, in which tweaked retellings of Old Testament stories and the reproductive cycles of South American beetles are equally likely topics.
“My two great themes are science, religion and history,” says David. “So when I’m trying to have a theme for the show, it’s about continuity through a mass distortion of the truth. What I’m trying to do is shine these truths on the mouth of a cave.”
Since late 2009, David’s been spreading that truth on the stage of the Moonstone Arts Center, located upstairs at Gayborhood fixture Robin’s Books. The coziness of the space facilitates the no-fourth-wall feeling David is looking to create between audience and performers, but it’s big enough to do justice to the noise made by musical acts like Philly’s psych-garage rockers Junkers.
The Weekly Revue returns to Moonstone Arts Center this fall. Come to a few shows and you might find yourself onstage—and unless you’re an adorable Canadian preteen, YouTube sure won’t do that for you.