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In Performance: adventures of a monologuist

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It was Mark Roth's exasperation with Kerouac's On the Road that set him off on his first journey. He put the book down after 70 pages--and got on a bus. What was the point of reading about other people's adventures, he thought, when he could have his own? So he set off in 1984 to go see a Chagall exhibit in Philadelphia. What he found when he got there was the Beach Boys giving an Independence Day concert on the steps of the museum underneath the "Rocky" statue. Fact, he decided, was certainly as strange as fiction.

Roth is a monologuist, and his stories are based on his adventures. He's always looking for new material, and he travels a lot. He doesn't have a permanent address or phone number; instead, he gives you a string of numbers you can contact him at temporarily while he house-sits or stays with friends. Though he's loosely based in Chicago, he moves around constantly, approaching his quest with the same fervor as the knights of the Holy Grail. Movement, he says, is "inherently good."

Roth, who is 27, graduated from the School of the Art Institute in 1987 and has been performing for six years, mostly in Chicago. He describes his monologues as "a series of short little stories, and they sort of refer back to themselves. . . . There is no linear narrative that runs through the entire piece. It's more like there are certain themes or words or images that recur that will flash back to earlier sequences."

While he's only come up with a total of possibly six "whole" monologues (each one lasts about an hour), he's composed about 200 of the short segments that make up these full-length events. He constantly reshuffles the segments, interrelating them and coming up with new stories and new conclusions. Though he's never recorded anything on paper, he'd like to eventually collect all the story segments into a book--not a collection of short stories, but a novel.

As often as not, Roth will incorporate stories other people have told him into his monologues. "I don't rule anything out if I can remember it. All the stories are based on real things," he says. "A few go back to some of the earliest things I can remember, like punching myself in the eye when I was a little kid."

When Roth latches onto something, he won't let go until he explores all its aspects--and finally enlightens both himself and his audience. "I just try to tell the world about itself," he says. "It's a respect for everyone's personal story. Then I have the audacity to . . . try to give voice to other people, to speak for them."

Roth certainly knows how to deliver his stories with the right punch line, though often that's all he's got scripted for himself before he goes onstage. Before each performance he immerses himself in the material and plans the punch lines, then lets the moment carry him when it comes to filling in the blanks.

People often go up to Roth after his shows and ask him if such and such a story is really true. "The correct response," he says, "is no, it happened to you--because the reality of the story is what takes place onstage, and the incidents that gave me the inclination to think of the story are almost irrelevant. It's the putting them together and the effect they'll have on the audience that ultimately matters."

Roth's most current monologue, "Footing the Turf," will touch on such topics as hitchhiking, hair care, color theory, Irish bogs, and indelicate dinner conversation. He'll perform it Wednesday at 8:30 PM at Club Lower Links, 954 W. Newport. Admission is $6. More info at 248-5238.

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