Frank Melcori is talking about his recent monthlong trip to northwestern India, which inspired his new performance piece, By the Time I Get to Jaipur. As he tells the story he tends to ramble, but you don't mind because he rambles interestingly. Deep down it's not rambling at all, but searching. After unhurriedly chewing through such topics as Hindu/Muslim violence in Kashmir, the odd parallels between the heroes of the Iliad and the Bhagavad Gita, and the beautiful old steam locomotives still in use on the subcontinent, Melcori finally gets around to what happened after he bought a legal hashish cookie while browsing through the old quarter of a town in Rajasthan.
"So it was like eleven o'clock in the morning, and they had this little bookstore. And of all things, I saw The Bridges of Madison County! I couldn't believe it. So I lay down in my hotel bedroom and took this hash and read the fucker! God, it was so terrible. But I could see why people were into it, you know? And I sat down and wrote the rest of the day and night on this fantasy about how the author of this book tracks down the literary agent in India to show him the manuscript and says, "Hey, I know it's a piece of shit, and you know it's a piece of shit, but we're gonna make a lotta money, let's do it!' And the agent says, "I can't believe you came all the way over here to hassle me with this awful fucking book, just to make money. What about art, blah blah blah.' And the author says, "Since when do you care about fucking art?"'
Melcori says that he wrote voluminously in India, but none of that material is in his new show, which he wrote after returning to Chicago. "The real tension and emotion about India for me was how I came to go there in the first place," he explains. "What eventually came together was that after a lot more writing, I wound up with these monologues that go back about 25 years. They're somewhat autobiographical, but I'm not peddling it as autobiography. I try to make characters out of what's going on."
Melcori calls By the Time I Get to Jaipur "an uneven history of desire." It's a series of short, understated vignettes that seem disconnected at first but gradually resolve into the story of a confused man whose frustrated longings finally lead him to make a sort of pilgrimage to the birthplace of Hinduism. But along the way enlightenment eludes him precisely because he desires it too much. "You know, we're always wanting," says Melcori. "And of course, in the Hindu tradition, until you extinguish desire you never get off the wheel."
He introduces each vignette on trumpet, picking his way awkwardly through an American pop standard like "Summertime" or "Someone to Watch Over Me." His trumpet was with him in India too. "I would practice on the roof or go down to the square in a small village to play, and people would gather around. That was a spiritual part of my journey, those simple standard tunes. And in this show, for better or worse, the only honest thing I could do was include this music." Melcori's trumpeting is so amateurish that some of the melodies are difficult to recognize. But in the context of the show his awkward, forlorn staccato appropriately illustrates his vision of a well-meaning character fumbling toward the truth even as his interactions with others degenerate into convoluted misunderstandings. Through it all, the character keeps plugging away with adult dignity while regarding the world with almost childlike curiosity.
In typically oblique fashion, Melcori explains the impulse behind his work by way of another story that didn't make it into his show: his visit to Jaisalmer, an 800-year-old walled town in the desert some 60 miles from the Pakistani border. "Christmas Eve I got up at 6:30 in the morning," he says. "It wasn't even really light yet. So I went up on the roof and it's raining. And I said, "Wow, it's raining in the desert on Christmas Eve. I'll take it.' I grabbed my journal and just went for a walk through the town. And this guy in his turban and his dirty smock, he was opening up his shop and throwing open the shutter. He saw me walking by and he says, "Chai,' which is tea. And I said, "Yeah.' So it was just him and me with this rain in this very little street, having tea. He didn't say anything to me, I didn't say anything to him. And that's why I went to India. I went to be able to say to people: I was in this little desert town, Christmas Eve, just having this tea. Artists, I think, need a time to sense that they're a part of what they're depicting. It's not just something you're making--you have to live it."
By the Time I Get to Jaipur is performed at 8 PM on Sundays through May 28. It's at the Lunar Cabaret and Full Moon Cafe, 2827 N. Lincoln; tickets are $7, or "pay what you can." Call 327-6666.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Nathan Mandell.