FOOTING THE TURF
at Club Lower Links
In his newest solo piece, Footing the Turf, it's plain that Mark Roth is smack-dab in the middle of a major artistic change. Roth is pushing himself into new and exciting territory--in style, content, and structure--and he has not yet found his feet. But the overflow crowd at Club Lower Links was there to encourage him, appreciative perhaps that this artist who is gaining in popularity is not resting on his laurels but challenging himself.
Roth is a monologuist, by nature and design a drifter, though he has appeared often in Chicago. For the last four or five years he's honed his writing and story-telling skills, constructing hour-long fantasy excursions in which the surreal and the banal intersect curiously. Despite his self-deprecating style, his work has always been disarmingly profound. Saying something like "When your back is up against the wall, you've got everything in front of you," he lets us know that this statement is both too simpleminded to be true and too true to be simpleminded. Roth reminds us that naivete can be an asset.
Footing the Turf brings us to a similar conclusion, but this new work probes more deeply into areas Roth has merely hinted at before. In particular, his musings on sexuality have never been so eloquent and moving--nor so graphic and disturbing. One of the piece's central images is Roth "lying together in the night" with a woman whose body, with all of its freckles, moles, birthmarks, and scars, is like a sky full of stars. This image is certainly familiar, but Roth expands the metaphor by adding "the stains of lovemaking"--saliva, semen, menstrual blood--which form their own constellations on the sheets.
These bodily fluids are here presented as natural and beautiful. In fact, they're beautiful because they're natural. (In stark contrast, Roth says of the businessmen we meet later in the piece: "You would never know they had bodies.") To Roth, these are not embarrassing stains to be cleaned up quickly--he raises these markings of love to a religious level, likening the sheet to the Shroud of Turin. But Roth does not allow his religious symbology, as tongue-in-cheek as it is, to turn these love marks into the merely metaphorical. He concludes: "It's the Shroud of Turin that's the metaphor here."
Roth also plunges into a truly nightmarish quasi-sexual scene describing a woman in the middle of a painful and humiliating abortion. The whirring machine is "tugging at her center," without a thought to the beauty it is destroying. Meanwhile the woman's husband is sitting in the waiting room thumbing through the New York Times. It's difficult to sit through this section, especially when the woman asks, "Why do I alone have to bear the memory of this?"
This story, like several others in Footing the Turf, is presented in an utterly stark and straightforward way, like nothing I've seen from Roth before. He adds no ironic twist at the end to soften the impact of any image. Rather, the honesty of the human emotion in the story holds it together. Roth seems to talk more directly, from his heart, than ever before, unafraid to wander into the dark side of his own imagination. The style of presentation has been pared, too. Whereas once Roth used to embody his stories, gesturing and moving about the stage, he now sits motionless, focusing attention on his words.
And Roth allows himself to speak in a more poetic voice, creating stories that don't add up yet create curiously resonant images. In one story, Roth as a child is sitting in a tire swing hung from a sycamore tree, listening to men play poker in the house. At one point his friend's daddy emerges and rides Roth's yellow bike--with a banana seat--around and around the sycamore, expounding upon how much he hates that tree. Then he lies down in the back of a pickup truck and dies.
The beautifully crafted images don't seem crafted--they seem pulled up from Roth's memory as if he were simply talking off the top of his head. And this story, unlike most of the others, has no apparent connection to anything else in Footing the Turf, popping up and then disappearing like an accident glimpsed on the highway. Yet it captures several of the contradictory pulls running through the piece--youth and old age, innocence and experience, life and death.
The title is explained near the end, when Roth talks about working in Ireland cutting bricks of peat for fuel. The hunks of sod are pulled up, exposed to oxygen for the first time (in effect the earth gives birth to them), then eventually stacked into little Stonehenge-like piles to dry. This process, called footing the turf, allows "everything to be exposed." In Footing the Turf, Roth exposes much more of himself than he has before. Of course, the performance is a bit rocky, lacking the carefully constructed arc that usually holds his pieces together. But by taking this artistic risk, Roth will undoubtedly carry his future audiences to new and unexpected emotional places.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Daniel Pastorelle.