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Stuart Allen and Valorie Hubbard

at Latino Chicago

August 23 and 25

Post Acute Withdrawal says all the right things. This evening of short performance pieces treats a number of hot topics--AIDS, drug addiction, homophobia, sexual alienation--with candor, explicit language, and a good deal of humor. Stuart Allen and Valorie Hubbard take plenty of risks, revealing highly personal information (both are recovering drug addicts) and appearing in various states of undress. All of the ingredients for an engaging performance are here, yet somehow the mixture remains curiously flat.

It's difficult to pinpoint why. The evening is made up primarily of monologues and stories written by Allen, all of which seem pulled directly from his life and center around moments of great emotional vulnerability. We see Allen as a child learn to let go of the shame he feels about his naked body in "Shame, Ignorance, and Binoculars." The piece culminates with Allen pulling off his clothes and performing his "wienie dance" on the imaginary grave of his Aunt Hester, who barked, "Shame! Shame!" whenever Allen behaved in an overtly sexual way. In "Crackhouse Stories," Allen and Hubbard perform a vaudevillelike routine recounting Allen's five-year battle with crack addiction. In "Getting Fisted," Allen wears a hospital gown and explains to a disembodied therapist the trauma of growing up gay and feeling alienated from his peers and his own sexuality. In "Joe," Allen tells the story of a lover who left him when he found out Allen was HIV-positive.

All of the writing is clear and concise--Allen never gums up the works by trying to pull in too many issues at once. His stories are simple and direct, as if he were merely recounting the facts.

But though this simplicity gives the evening an endearing sincerity at times, it rarely achieves a larger resonance. Allen seems unable to create a sense of immediacy. For example, "Crackhouse Stories" is full of horrifying images of self-abuse. Allen ends up spending every penny he has on crack, ruining his health, hurting his friends and family, and generally self-destructing. While I would never belittle the severity of this episode in his life, onstage it seems frustratingly remote and packaged. Allen comes off as a kind of stock crack addict, which of course he's not. Yet his stake in the matter, the unique qualities of his journey, are curiously absent. "Crackhouse Stories" told me little beyond the images and sound bites of the evening news.

Allen hasn't quite figured out how to make these stories both unique and familiar, human. They feel more like creative-writing assignments than performance texts. The journeys he leads us through lack the twists and surprises that can help provide dramatic urgency. In essence, the facts speak for themselves without suggesting any imaginative leaps.

Allen and Hubbard's intentionally broad performance style seems an intelligent choice. The two of them continually poke fun at their own pathetic low-budget show, even apologizing for a 30-second pause for a costume change. Without this farcical style, the evening would have seemed hopelessly self-indulgent. But at the same time this broad style seems somewhat forced--the performers are not quite at home in the exaggerated shoes they've fashioned for themselves. And the evening's hard veneer often prevents genuine emotions from shining through.

Interspersed throughout are monologues taken from a play, Every Gay People, by Mark Manning. They're serviceably performed by Hubbard, who adopts the persona of a performance artist extolling the virtues of her overly obvious feminist work, but they don't seem to belong in this evening of personal experiences. Perhaps they were included as a gesture of self-mockery, but such self-deprecating humor is already inherent in their approach.

Post Acute Withdrawal is an open and frank discussion of important issues on a high school level. This is not intended as a slight. Quite often Allen and Hubbard take an instructional tone, saying that safe sex is everyone's responsibility or that 12-step programs offer real hope of recovery. These pieces might be effective in reaching young adults questioning their sexuality or at risk for AIDS or drug addiction.

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