Milestones--A Tribute to Miles Davis/The Sleepwalker's Ballad | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Milestones--A Tribute to Miles Davis/The Sleepwalker's Ballad


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La Barraca '90

at Stage Left

Having spent too much of the late 70s and early 80s watching pretentious, empty minimalist independent films and performance pieces, I've developed a strong aversion to artists who try to hide the fact that they have nothing to say behind strong visuals and hip explanations. Their work is "nonlinear," or "a rebellion against Western ways of thinking," or worst of all "a reaction against the idea that a work of art must say something." As if the creation of inoffensive, apolitical, interpretation-defying work doesn't say something about American culture, about the institutions that pay for artwork, and about our fear of looking ourselves straight in the eye.

I've always figured that if artists can't reveal what's on their minds for fear of being called unhip or Eurocentric or any of a thousand epithets people toss around to shut out opinions they don't like, then they might as well go work at an ad agency, where having no convictions is an advantage.

Which is why I find Frank Melcori's current show so appealing. When this kindly, soft-spoken, rather unassuming monologuist steps onto the stage, he does so with his defenses down, ready to honestly reveal what's in his soul. Melcori doesn't play characters. He spends most of his time telling about his life in a tone only a half step more theatrical than he'd use at home. Like better-known monologuists such as Spalding Gray, Kevin Kling, or Cheryl Trykv, Melcori allows the substance of his story to carry the show, though he's even less mannered.

In fact, the stories Melcori tells--about growing up in Philadelphia, driving a cab in New York, trying to live as an artist in Chicago while working as a paralegal--are not unlike those one might tell a friend over dinner or drinks. Except that from time to time he interrupts his story to play a taped excerpt from Miles Davis's "Milestones."

Why Melcori has chosen to call this collection of autobiographical musings "a tribute to Miles Davis" is not entirely clear. It is in no way a musical tribute in the tradition of those vulgar, glitzy star-studded affairs that appear on TV from time to time. At no point does Melcori pick up the horn set prominently in a spotlight and play some Davis standard. And it's not clear why Melcori begins and ends his show with a quotation from Davis's 1989 autobiography, in which Davis vividly describes the experience of performing "Milestones" with the likes of John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley.

Yet the up-tempo melancholy of "Milestones" complements the mildly depressive mood of Melcori's reminiscences. And he obviously cherishes his one brush with this great musician--when Davis stepped into the drugstore where Melcori worked as a teenager. In fact, his interest in Davis's music borders on obsessive; he recounts a fight with his ex-wife in which she accused him of loving his art and Davis more than her.

Still it's hard not to feel a little frustrated that Melcori hasn't delved a little deeper into his relationship with Davis. Especially since by unwrapping the layers of his strong feelings for the man, he might answer one of the show's unstated questions: Why is it that celebrities often seem more real, accessible, and worthy of love than the members of our own families?

Instead, Melcori gets hung up on the sort of unanswerable philosophical questions that college roommates of mine used to raise when they got stoned: Why are we here? Are we here? Where is here? Is here there? As a professor friend of mine used to say, the essence of philosophy is finding the right questions to ask. And these don't seem at all the right ones.

Melcori would do well to steal a lick or two from Davis, who begins his 1989 autobiography with a single word--"Listen"--and creates an instant intimacy between him and his readers. Melcori achieves the same sort of intimacy the moment he begins speaking. In fact, he has such a compelling presence that it's easy to forgive him his metaphysical excesses. But his show would have been much more powerful if he had listened as closely to the ebb and flow of his own soul as he had listened to Miles Davis's music.

There are times when words and music combined are far more evocative than words or music alone. This fact was driven home to me earlier this week by La Barraca '90's production of Federico Garcia Lorca's "The Sleepwalker's Ballad," translated by Elaine Glusac and adapted by Tomas de Utrera. On the page this exercise in surrealist poetry defies rational explication, though it is full of evocative imagery--"The fig tree scratches the wind / with sandpaper branches / and the mountain, a sneaking cat, / bristles its bitter claws." Much of it seems more word salad than poetry.

But when this decidedly nonlinear, nonnarrative ballad is fused with flamenco music and dance, the result is a vivid and moving theater piece. I have no more idea what the ballad is about than when I first read Garcia Lorca's lines: "Green wind, / Green branches, / the ship on the sea, / The horse on the mountain." But it doesn't seem to matter as much, because Utrera's guitar playing and Poli's sensuous dancing filled the show with such powerful and unstated yearning. Even when the stage picture seems like a parody of bad Fellini--a dwarf sits half-dozing in a chair on a box above a man pulling yards of red silk out of an older man's chest while others look on--the overall effect is still sublime.

For an hour I was transfixed--by the dance, by the music, by Peter Cook's graceful translation of Lorca's poetry into sign language. For a few brief moments I think I even began to understand what the elusive, difficult Garcia Lorca was about.

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