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Tall Tales & Small Miracles

Tellin' Tales Theatre

at Live Bait Theater

By Justin Hayford

On numerous occasions during Tall Tales & Small Miracles writer-performers Tekki Lomnicki and Laura Dare say that "we are all the same person." As I listened to them speak or sing this sentiment with a kind of grade-school-teacher earnestness, I couldn't help but think just how unlike these two I am. I'm not one to name my theater company "Tellin' Tales"; that folksy apostrophe makes my toenails curl. I don't believe you can "build community through storytelling," as the company's meaningless mission statement declares. (What community? Whose stories?) And I'll never be one to subject an audience to 20 minutes of Kitaro-like preshow music, all electronic major seventh chords droning uninterrupted while birds chirp in the background, sounding like one of those environmental CDs designed to help you fall asleep.

I'm not much like the people in their opening-night crowd either, who seemed to hang on just about every word the performers uttered, then exploded into an exuberant standing ovation. Of course, every opening-night audience is papered with friends, supporters, and well-wishers, but this group seemed to border on the fanatical, howling at just about every joke no matter how broad the delivery or how telegraphed the punch line, murmuring affirmations when Lomnicki opened the show by saying she's part of "the tribe of people who like to tell good stories." The place felt more like a revival meeting than an off-night, off-Loop show, and storytelling was apparently the religion of choice.

There's no denying that Lomnicki and Dare are talented performers, creating a genuine rapport with the audience while gliding through about a dozen stories in a little over an hour. Under Domenick Danza's direction, the pair sprint amiably along, telling us abbreviated versions of their life stories (highly abbreviated in Dare's case). But Tall Tales feels more like a promo reel than a finished work, skipping from big moment to big laugh without much in between. The artists haven't done the hard detail work that might tie the evening together and give it real depth.

A story from the middle of the show is typical. In "Confessions of an Ex Fag Hag," Lomnicki--who's three and a half feet tall--tells us about her youthful days as a Bette Midler wannabe, slapping on flashy outfits and shaking it up with the boys at Bistro and Orbit Room. Like most of the stories in Tall Tales it veers wildly between charming candor (straight men would never tell Lomnicki she looks fabulous) and manufactured sentimentality (gay men teach her that being "different" is OK). The story builds to Lomnicki's reunion with Willie, a gay high school chum now dying of AIDS. Since we know almost nothing about Willie except that he likes disco music, his death seems a contrived platform for poignancy. It's no accident that after Willie's tragic two-minute demise he's never spoken of again.

For all its efforts toward homey frankness, Tall Tales is an evening of storytelling unwittingly patterned after Hollywood blockbusters, all highlight and precious little development, with themes as broad and unmistakable as those that make Contact such simpleminded drudgery. Granted, Lomnicki and Dare are far more interesting writers than the pinhead--or, more likely, the committee of pinheads--who wrote Contact, if only because they actually display a sense of humor. Dare goes off on a delightful jag about the commodification of female beauty in America, rapping, "Your neck looks like a turtle / You'll soon become infertile / Let's bring back the girdle." And Lomnicki gets lots of mileage out of the commercialization of Catholicism; hoping to "cure" her dwarfism, she sends away to Lourdes for a bottle of holy water and ends up with a plastic vial shaped like the Virgin Mary, a blue screw-off crown atop her head.

But Tall Tales suffers from the same ailment that afflicts so much autobiographical performance, as Lomnicki and Dare too often imagine every aspect of their personal lives to be plum material. Thankfully, they rarely fall into the self-pity trap, by and large maintaining a healthy irreverence for their own traumas and foibles. But when Lomnicki reads her own resume onstage while Dare impersonates a few officious secretaries and hard-ass bosses under whom Lomnicki suffered, it's clear that a wide gulf sometimes separates life and art.

In the end, it's hard to know what Lomnicki and Dare mean by insisting that "we are all the same people" when they spend the entire evening talking about themselves. Perhaps this bit of facile, feel-good pap is meant to deflect accusations of artistic self-absorption; if we're all the same person, then the performers are really telling our stories. But until they learn to flesh out and complicate their tales, the deeper resonance that might universalize their stories will elude them.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Tall Tales and Small Miracles theater still.

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