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    Guide to Health and Strength

    Happy days are here again

    Writer-performer Jason Stella reaches back to the idealized "mental hygiene" educational films of the 1950s as a framework for examining the state of the male psyche today, in the funny and perceptive "Guide to Strength and Health."


    If all had gone according to plan in the 1950s, you'd be perfect today. That was the era when the great minds of science and education were producing instructional films with names like "A Date with the Family" and "How to Be Popular," expertly made to produce a generation of perfectly adjusted teenagers. Today, we can laugh at these dopey films — with their advice like, don't bother your parents by talking about serious problems, and, look at what clothes the other boys wear and try to be like them — thanks to the archival efforts of Rick Prelinger and Ken Smith (whose local screenings of mental hygiene films we wrote about last year).

    Written and performed by: Jason Stella.
    Jason Stella, with a new one-man show optimistically titled "Guide to Health and Strength," has gone beyond just laughing at those 1950s simpletons (not that there's anything wrong with that). His show is a series of character monologues — bracketed by segments from the happy-family, happy-country propaganda of the past — that deftly explore the question of where we stand today compared to the sunny, well-adjusted future we were promised half a century ago. Perhaps we're no smarter about ourselves now than we were then — we just have a more refined sense of irony.

    Most sympathetic (if pathetic) is Stella's second character — a frumpy accountant who has a simple explanation for why he likes going to strip clubs to gawk at unattainably sexy women. "It does the ego no good to throw money at ugly women," he notes, straightforwardly. The women who actually give him a second glance in real life don't appeal to him and he doesn't impress them either. "There's no looks and no money," he says of himself, "and no one wants to find out what's left, which is me."

    Guide to Health and Strength  
    The other well-developed character in this bunch is a working-class Yankee fan in whom we sense a certain personal emptiness that's filled by vicarious identification with his sports idols and sports-talk culture. He talks about the players on TV as if he knows everything about them; he talks to them as if they are doing his bidding. He pronounces Willie Randolph the best third-base coach in baseball — and you can feel how he savors his own right to pronounce his opinion on even such a meaningless issue. The former Yankee second baseman is "a very elekant man," he informs his game-watching buddy. "Elekant. It means you talk good. If you went to high school you would know."

    Stella's performance style treads a fine line between a believable, off-the-top-of-the-head naturalness — full of stammering and repetition but with the feel of a real person telling a real story — and a tendency to actually ramble sometimes. But "Guide to Health and Strength" has quite a bit to say about who we are as American men in the '00s and it's well worth seeing. It seems to say, we've replaced that inane but fatherly voice of 1950s authority with an inner void and no one to tell us how to fill it — how to be an authentic person in an increasingly vicarious world.

    MAY 15, 2001

    Reader comments on Guide to Health and Strength:

  • Jason Stella   from Veronica, Jan 26, 2004
  • jason!!!!!!!!! NICE WORK!!!!!!!!!!   from rob shapiro, Jul 4, 2004
  • Is that you?   from stacy shearer, Mar 9, 2009

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