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Michael H. Brownstein

at the Heartland Cafe Studio Theatre, through August 27


Barrie Cole

at the Heartland Cafe Studio Theatre, through August 26

I keep a copy of Henry David Thoreau's Walden on my desk, next to my computer, to remind me (1) how powerful prose can be when the writer has something to say and the conviction to say it, and (2) how important cranks are to the American character, especially those parts of the American character worth keeping safe from corporate, gentrified homogenization.

Michael H. Brownstein is a first-class eccentric in the tradition of Thoreau. A teacher for 13 years in the Chicago public schools, he also drives cabs and occasionally contributes "Our Town" pieces to the Reader. A year ago or so, he tells me, he got the idea that if Spaulding Gray could win a national reputation just by telling autobiographical stories, so could he. So here he is, sitting behind a handmade plywood version of Gray's trademark table, telling autobiographical stories culled from his years living and working in Chicago. Of course, copying Gray's set doesn't necessarily give a performer Gray's wry delivery or his gift for transforming even the most uncomfortable situation (suffering writer's block, buying a lemon of a house, getting caught in a riptide off the coast of Thailand) into a hilarious story. After all, Gray came to solo performing after years of Equity-level acting.

Brownstein is someone who clearly came late to the stage. He fidgets when he talks, bolts from his desk in the middle of sentences, paces while he growls out his stories. The night I saw him he'd literally stepped to the stage from his cab--hair uncombed, glasses smudged, disconnected taximeter still in his hands. In fact he's so unlike the polished, proper, Protestant New Englander Gray in his delivery and onstage manner that if he hadn't named Gray as an influence, I don't think I'd have made the connection.

What saves Brownstein from being just another performance wannabe--the 90s equivalent of those mildly funny friends we all knew in school who'd memorized George Carlin's routines but bombed the first time they tried stand-up--is that he has something to say, and he wants desperately to say it. The three extended monologues that make up Ten Times People Attempted to Rob Me and Other Things ("When You Work for the Principal," "Growing Up Racist in Chicago," and "Ten Times People Attempted to Rob Me") all cover the same topic more or less--the adventures of a well-meaning, kind of innocent liberal urban white boy in various hostile environments: the Chicago school system, Cabrini-Green, the streets of Chicago's west side, a small town in southern Missouri.

None of these stories is particularly well written in a literary sense, and they're all delivered in the simple, unadorned way a friend would tell you some amazing or amusing thing that happened to him. But Brownstein's stories are so amazing that a more polished delivery would only detract from their power. In fact, on the few occasions that Brownstein reaches for a literary effect, his writing feels manipulative and unnecessarily didactic: he keeps interrupting his first monologue with variations on the sentence "Sometimes when you work for the Chicago schools, you only work for the principal," thus highlighting points he's already made crystal-clear.

Things go better when Brownstein focuses on just getting the story right. Early on, for example, he talks about a favorite student, Debra, whose life was destroyed when her brother raped a neighbor girl and her mother got it into her head that the only way to keep her son out of jail was to break down the door and murder the rape victim and her family. The horror of the story is compounded by Brownstein's matter-of-fact way of telling us what happened, how the bodies were discovered by two girls who came late to a party.

The banality of Brownstein's delivery makes the truth of his stories unmistakable. And it's his willingness to tell us the truth honestly and directly that makes him a powerful storyteller.

Barrie Cole, also performing a one-person show at the Heartland Cafe Studio Theatre, makes a fascinating contrast with Brownstein, for she is best--and paradoxically feels the most emotionally honest--at her most literary and formal. Her title piece, "The Else," delivered to an unseen wooer, uses a technique right out of Gertrude Stein: words and phrases are repeated to create a shattered syntax speaking volumes about the narrator's confusion and anxiety. It's amazing how moving it is to watch her stutter through her monologue and realize that her text and subtext absolutely contradict each other--she says, "Go away, suitor, I'm not attracted to you," but her subtext says, "I'm terrified of you because you're attractive to me." Her impassioned plea at the end of the piece, with its sly double meaning, is devastating: "All I really and truly want to know is are you are you are you are you are you are you are you at all are you at all are you at all with me?"

Almost as powerful is the last monologue in The Else and Other Pieces. "The Body of a Worm" is a lecture on earthworms (complete with a very graphic poster showing a worm cross section) in which Cole digresses into eccentric, self-revelatory musings about her love of worms, her envy of their hermaphroditism ("You can wear a dress and a mustache at the same time"), and how much she identifies with them. As in "The Else," Cole never quite comes out and says what she means. But she gives us more than enough evidence to conclude that she has ambivalent feelings about her wormlike self, and that in turn makes her odd fascination with worms not only understandable but moving.

Cole asks us to make a similar leap in "Fetus on the Road," but unfortunately the meaning of the fetus changes so much over the course of the story--at first it seems to signify Cole's desire for a child, then artistic yearnings, and finally the work of art itself--that it only further confuses a piece that's already abstract and unfocused. Cole clearly intends this as an allegory of sorts, but of what is never clear.

Cole's least sophisticated, most formally conventional piece, "Cream Colored Dress With Black Stars and a Red Collar," is also the least satisfying. This straightforward, realistic story--about a 16-year-old girl who gets intimations of her own womanly sexuality when she wears her aunt's dress, only to find that her mother doesn't approve of her new look--feels flat and predictable, especially compared with the subterranean power of "The Else" and "The Body of a Worm." Even this piece is performed with such grace and control, however, and Cole delivers her self-consciously literary text with such smooth, understated power that I look forward to this young performer's next effort.

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