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Interviewing the Dead, a Fictional Autobiography

Michael K. Meyers

at the Lunar Cabaret, through September 29

I Can't Remember Any Kids' Names on That Trip to Go Drinking in Lake Geneva, Rawkus Down, and Super-Learning With George

John Starrs, Johnny Mars, and Theater of the Catbird

at the Lunar Cabaret, through September 29

Deep Listening

Still Point Theater Collective

at the Lunar Cabaret, through October 3

The Rhinoceros Theater Festival, now in its 13th year, isn't the place for solo artists who expect to be coddled. All the performers, from the 30-year veteran to the greenest neophyte, get the same things: an empty stage and a time slot. If they need someone to direct, produce, design, stage-manage, or type up a program--even black out the lights--they have to do it themselves or bring in a friend. Many go without. The festival is not for theorists but for those who can roll up their sleeves and bang together a piece from scratch.

In such an austere environment, experience is crucial. So it's no surprise that two of the city's most experienced monologuists, Michael K. Meyers and John Starrs, outshine their younger colleagues. Both in their 60s, Meyers and Starrs are at opposite ends of the literary spectrum: Meyers's carefully composed, semisurreal tales might have sprung from the sunny side of Kafka's imagination while Starrs's stream-of-consciousness stories about his adolescence sound like the transcript of a blue-collar Chicagoan reminiscing over a couple of beers. As performers, both exploit a bare-bones aesthetic--standing or sitting before a microphone, reading or reciting--but to very different ends.

Onstage Meyers's beguiling mix of east-coast cool and midwest gawkiness perfectly embodies his literary style, which artfully combines aloof sophistication and wide-eyed wonder. His newest story, Interviewing the Dead, a Fictional Autobiography, achieves this delicate balance with more finesse, humor, and psychological depth than anything he's written in recent years. In Meyers's trademark fashion, dreamlike elements creep in almost unnoticed, transforming a quaint, quirky episode of marital malaise into a hallucinogenic romp through Judgment Day.

The story begins with little fanfare. The narrator, who calls himself Michael Meyers, is on his way to visit a psychic with his cheerless wife, Beety. "We want the psychic to make contact with dad," he says, "dead for about two weeks at the time, to inquire if there's a will." But the psychic gets "poor reception," and soon Meyers and Beety are back on the road, swerving to avoid an odd crush of animals and people. The next day Meyers reads a newspaper article suggesting an explanation: God has returned to earth and the dead have risen, heading back to the spots where they died and their former homes. Meyers muses that God's return might also explain "what the cat and the canary, dead and buried in the park, are doing on the dining room table, and mom, why she's back in the pantry again, wedged between the fridge and the wall. That was mom's spot."

When Meyers's dad returns, he can't remember whether he made a will. Milling about quietly, the dead study the patterns in clouds, linoleum, and wood grain. Meyers's mother's family--"the whole dead bunch"--putter around at his sister's house "like turkeys. Rain, shine, they just stand in the backyard." Finally Meyers's dead mother decides to marry her dead friend, and a defrocked neighboring priest officiates while the dead cat, dead canary, and a living but depressed dog serve as witnesses.

For all its fantastic elements, Interviewing the Dead is deeply poignant, astutely capturing the psychology of inertia, expressed not only in the stranded turkeys of the dead but in the pitiful marriage of Meyers's alter ego. "Beety and I live inside our personal capsule," he says. "Together we generate enough force to rip at each other, but not enough to tear us apart." This easily recognizable paralysis gives the tale sufficient weight to keep it from evaporating into pure fancy.

Meyers recites his monologue in a soft voice, a microphone poised at his lips, in effect reading his audience a bedtime story. Opting for understatement, he ingeniously throws away some of the most outlandish passages as though they were perfectly mundane. That contrast often creates disarming comedy, but on opening night he occasionally threw away too much, sometimes jumbling sentences together and rushing his words. As a result episodes felt interchangeable, and the arc of his story--exquisite on paper--was muddled. In all likelihood Meyers simply had an off night (the first I've seen from him in about 15 years), and once he settles into the piece's rhythm he should return to his usual mesmerizing clarity.

Meanwhile Starrs proceeds from a state of chaos. In I Can't Remember Any Kids' Names on That Trip to Go Drinking in Lake Geneva, he appears distracted, as though something offstage had just captured his fancy. He begins to mumble about the story he's about to read; he spent all day in a cafe writing, he says, then lost his pad of paper only to find it hours later in the middle of the street, where cars had run over it "about 400 times." Then he takes a pause beyond Pinter, gives his audience a cobralike stare, and produces the pad, its pages rendered nearly illegible by tire tracks.

This seemingly artless prelude is in fact a crafty introduction to Starrs's addled persona. Charmingly befuddled, this hapless soul seems thwarted by the simple task of hanging on to his manuscript. At the same time, Starrs knows how to bring his ramblings to a screeching halt, producing the pad of paper in an electrifying silence. In a few short minutes, it's clear that Starrs's persona is a likable guy whose aging brain works in unexpected ways. When he stations himself behind a music stand to read the nearly destroyed story, it's no surprise that he loses his place now and then, garbles a few words, and suddenly diverges from the text. It may be cliched to call such imperfections part of Starrs's charm, but in this case the trite is true; his failings give him character.

Starrs's tale of teenage chicanery--copping fake IDs from a friend, then heading up to Wisconsin for a marathon of drinking--is unadorned. He never bothers with literary flourishes or symbolism. The events of one self-indulgent day are enough for him, although he heads off on a dozen tangents. Whose car did he drive that day? Perhaps it was his father's or his brother's. No, his brother never had a car. His father used to own a Model T. One time he flipped it over in a ditch, grabbed the chassis in both hands, righted the car, and went on his way.

Starrs writes the way most of us think. So if something in a Wisconsin bar reminds him of the "polio hospital" where he spent time as a youth, he's suddenly back in the ward, showing off his erection to an amazed fellow patient. This approach is what gives his work its richness, reminding us that the most ordinary events extend in all directions and across time.

Not all the performers aim for depth. On the same program with Starrs, former WXRT disc jockey Johnny Mars reads a self-consciously simple story, Rawkus Down, that's like a children's fairy tale. Bumbling music-loving lamb Zac becomes a DJ at the coolest radio station in town in hopes of understanding the magical power of rock and roll. At first he and his fellow DJs are free to spin anything and everything, even the recorded noise of car accidents or industrial machinery. But soon station manager Grifty, a ferret-faced dog consumed with becoming rich, enforces a safer format. Zac gets strung out on drugs, and soon he's out of a job, searching for a passion to replace the one that got him started in radio.

The years Mars spent on the air have served him well: he reads his text with all the care and fire of a concert pianist playing a concerto. One can only assume that the fable is largely autobiographical, but Mars's allegorical rendering tends to simplify what was surely a convoluted story. And given his white-hot performance, I for one wanted to hear a detailed account of the whole sordid mess.

Writer-performer Robin Cline has some difficulty navigating her complicated text, Super-Learning With George, a faux informational seminar. While purportedly helping the audience increase its memorization skills, she muses over a multitude of topics: the body's inner rhythms, quantifying body parts into cups and pounds, the aftermath of a highway fatality, George Foreman's defeat at the hands of Muhammad Ali. Cline's writing is alluring, but she's neglected the fundamental job of a performer: knowing her text. She reads with little conviction, apparently unsure of what comes next or where any of it is going. The result is a flat, nearly incomprehensible piece that shouldn't have opened for another week.

Writer Teresa Weed is unafraid to plunge into the most complex of human mysteries--death. Deep Listening begins intriguingly, opposing two characters: a 28-year-old medical student, trained to see death as a failure of skill and technology, and her 82-year-old mother, who's decided to take to her bed for the last time. We then follow the medical student and a handful of her patients, all of them terminally ill with cancer. While the student tries to distance herself from death, fiddling with knobs and dials rather than touching human flesh, her patients suffer a multitude of indignities.

Weed is a writer of enormous promise with a knack for boiling down complicated truths to exquisite nuggets of prose. When the medical student stands befuddled before her first patient, for example, she describes his body as "a maze of privacies." But about halfway through the piece Weed loses direction and begins taking the audience on a ghoulish tour, mercilessly piling on scene after scene of suffering. The struggle to find a meaningful path into death all but disappears.

It doesn't help that performer Lisa Wagner lunges with disturbing gusto into the most macabre moments, producing bountiful tears on a moment's notice. Her performance--heartfelt but lacking in nuance--coupled with Weed's lack of restraint brings the show dangerously close to an exploitation of others' suffering.

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