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Crazy Sweet Dreams; Strange Gift; Food for Thought

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CRAZY SWEET DREAMS

at Cafe Voltaire

STRANGE GIFT

at Cafe Voltaire

ANGEL FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Chaos & Cacophony Productions

at Cafe Voltaire

It's not too great a simplification to say that the success of a one-person show depends almost entirely upon whether or not the audience likes the performer. Of course the performer's talent, intelligence, and insightfulness play a role, but imagine sitting at a party for an hour with a talented, intelligent, and insightful person you don't like. Likability is even more important in the theater, where they rarely put out bowls of munchies, and they make you sit in the dark and not talk to anyone.

Of the three women currently doing solo performances at Cafe Voltaire, only Cheryl Anderson in Crazy Sweet Dreams has what it takes to be likable to a large group of strangers (fittingly, she was the only one who drew a large crowd on opening night). Anderson is not only smart, funny, and unfailingly poised, she understands the importance of performing with her audience, acknowledging and including them. The other two, Helen Katz in Strange Gift and Rachel Yeck in Angel Food for Thought, put so much energy into big acting and dramatic reenactments that they effectively ignore their audiences, which is especially unfortunate in a space as tiny as Cafe Voltaire. They spend too much time trying to create a reality that isn't and not enough participating in the reality that is.

Mostly autobiographical, Crazy Sweet Dreams is named after two of Patsy Cline's biggest hits. In the first of its two parallel stories Anderson is just out of college and full of youthful optimism, driving from Chicago to Dallas, Pennsylvania, to perform in her first professional show, which turns out to be a grossly inferior Merchant of Venice. In the second story, she flies to London after serendipitously arranging to be interviewed by film director Mike Leigh, an interview she bungles miserably.

The common theme in both stories is that of glorious dreams running head-on into decidedly unsympathetic realities. The stories are delightful in and of themselves--her detour into a gynecologist's office in Scranton is priceless--but Anderson also enriches them by providing an almost mythical context. In both tales she must pass through a sudden, violent storm to reach her destination, subtly suggesting that the elements conspired against her in these ill-fated endeavors and elevating her material into an almost magical realm.

This magical sensibility allows for a crucial image in the middle of the piece. At a sidewalk sale outside a McCrory's five-and-dime in Scranton, Anderson encounters "the Beast," a misshapen woman with two teeth, one on the top and one on the bottom, who can do little more than grunt. The Beast is trying to wedge her discolored, bulbous foot into a size-five blue silk slipper, turning herself into a pathetic anti-Cinderella. No image could be more suited to Anderson's own dilemma. Like the Beast, she wants to be the belle of the ball (she's even dressed in a formal white gown and a string of drop-dead pearls, which seem perfectly ridiculous in Voltaire's dingy basement). But despite her endless charm and enthusiasm--or, in the case of the interview with Mike Leigh, because of them--she ends up disappointed, all dressed up with no place to go.

On opening night Anderson's performance was quite shaky during the first 20 minutes, as though she were on the verge of forgetting her lines. (On one charming occasion she actually announced in dulcet tones, "Ladies and gentlemen, I've blanked!" and stomped over to the light booth to get her cue.) Once she found her stride, though, and focused on telling her story rather than remembering her words, the evening reached rare levels of sublimity.

Like her performance, Anderson's text is uneven, with a few too many digressions to make the evening feel unified. However, considering the improvements Anderson made in her performance during an hour and a half, there's no telling what she'll do with the script during her six-week run.

At the opposite extreme from Anderson's giddy, unpredictable piece is Katz's plodding, humorless Strange Gift. Katz spends about an hour telling us about her troubled relationship with her mother, a woman who married a drunken bookie and who apparently seized any opportunity to belittle and embarrass her daughter. Now that her mother is dead, Katz is finally allowing herself to tell the real story of her dysfunctional family. And she tells it ad nauseam.

All these dark family secrets might be fodder for therapy, and indeed nearly all of Strange Gift sounds and feels like a role-playing counseling session, complete with references to "enabling" and "defenses" as well as the apparently gargantuan admission that some things are "scary." But someone else's therapy isn't theater, and Strange Gift rarely reaches beyond self-help and self-pity. Katz's performance is further hampered by her flavorless, impersonal delivery and her grating midwestern twang, which turns into a veritable screech whenever she becomes the slightest bit animated (have all the vocal coaches gone out of business?).

It's nice that Katz has made some sort of peace with her mother, but her conclusion--"I know there are things I have to say"--makes us ask why anyone needs to listen.

Occasionally a piece of theater comes along that leaves me truly dumbfounded. Chaos & Cacophony Productions' Angel Food for Thought is one of them. This one-woman musical about urban angst is performed by an actress, Rachel Yeck, who can't sing. I don't mean that she has an unconventional voice, I mean she can't carry a tune.

Is everyone involved in this production tone-deaf? How else did they ever get past their first rehearsal? How could they let a member of their own ranks make such an embarrassing spectacle of herself?

To make matters worse, Yeck and director Steve Decker have taken the script's 24 poems, some set to music, by Meryn Cadel and invented the creakiest of devices to glue them together. Yeck is apparently moving into a new apartment, intentionally isolating herself from the rest of the world in a place that is "seven thousand miles from infinity," whatever that means. As she unpacks, she finds objects--a Bible, a photograph, a poster of Erik Estrada--that serve as springboards into poems or characters. Not only does this convention wear thin after the 15th time, but it's illogical. If "reality" here is that Yeck is moving into a new apartment, then why, barring schizophrenia, does she keep breaking into different voices?

This framing device also leaves Yeck stranded at the end of each poetic episode: she has to change back into herself for no reason other than to place another book on the bookshelf or, in a truly inexplicable moment, to clip coupons. In one stupefyingly misdirected scene, Yeck actually ends a poem sitting in a steamer trunk. She has no choice but to gracelessly extract herself and return to unpacking as though entirely unaware of the psychotic episode she just had.

I can't speak for the three other people in the audience on opening night, but I left the theater feeling insulted. It's the height of arrogance to charge admission for such slipshod, unintelligent work. People who don't understand the fundamentals of theater should do something else. Just as people who are tone-deaf shouldn't sing. It pays to know your limitations.

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