Carmela Rago and Michael K.Meyers
at the Blue Rider Theatre, November 10 and 11
Let's Order Grasshopper 'Cause Everything Else Tastes Like Chicken
Michael H. Brownstein
at Cafe Voltaire, through December 27
Nothing could be more natural in our narcissistic era than for the world to be flooded with solo performers, all of them totally convinced that their little lives of quiet desperation are of interest. But who could have predicted that artists like Carmela Rago and Michael K. Meyers, both of them adept at highly visual forms of performance, would end up alone onstage, microphone in hand, turning their semiautobiographical stories into art?
When I first started watching Rago's work, in the early 80s, she was always walking the line between performance and dance or performance and theater. In one piece, I remember, she wore a filmy Isadora-like costume and kept striking dancerly poses while she asked deadpan questions like "Why is Anais Nin so full of herself?" In another piece, No Cover, No Minimum, she recited a long, digressive, ultimately poignant monologue about a woman who shopped to anesthetize her feelings; while she told the story she unpacked box after box of shoes until the stage was crowded with pumps and boots and sandals and Mary Janes.
But in her most recent pieces Rago stands stock-still, reading from a binder, shielded from her audience by a black metal music stand. All pretense of playing a persona has been dropped. Gone is the self-conscious dancer who resented Nin's egotism and the sad, self-deluding shopaholic. Instead Carmela is merely Carmela now, standing onstage reading from a binder. Oddly enough it's a loss, and not just because Rago had such a gift for playing quirky characters. She seems somehow less present and visible to her audience now, as if Rago the critic had shamed Rago the artist into hiding the most charming and childish parts of her soul.
Her work is still populated by sweet, wounded eccentrics. In Pocket Venus a young kleptomaniac artist makes paintings by stealing beautiful dresses, dipping them in resin, and throwing them onto a canvas. In She Cannot Keep a Neat House a married woman feels that her chaotic home, with its shedding, vomiting pets and indifferent husband, reflects something awful but as yet unexamined in her life. And in Heroin a young, fatherless girl who drifts along, hanging out with her heroin-addict boyfriend, feels small because her dying mother once snarled out her disappointment that her daughter didn't get into Harvard.
Rago's storytelling gifts have gotten stronger. She Cannot Keep a Neat House is perhaps the most succinct, powerful tale she's ever written. But we hear all three of these poignant stories secondhand, told in the third person by a performer whose warm, witty, quavering voice and evocative gestures seem intentionally confined by the conventions of a staged reading.
If Rago seems diminished by her increasingly minimalist performance style, Meyers's work is actually improved by its increased simplicity. In the early 80s his pieces were baroquely complex (if anything can be said to be both postmodern and baroque), with large casts, lots of props, and many bewildering short scenes. I remember seeing one performance at the State of Illinois Center that employed a full marching band. The odd thing was that no matter how complicated and baffling these extravaganzas became, Meyers was always at the center of them, trying to explain in his warm, musical teacher's voice what it all meant. But somehow he always failed, because that was the point: that the world was, as Heracleitus might say, so fluxed up that you could never really put it together.
That theme persists in his work, but Meyers has eliminated all the props, the actors, and the complicated pomo theatricality--everything but himself. In a sense he's thrown away his act, in Lenny Bruce's words, presenting himself to the audience as "Michael K. Meyers," a likable but anxious middle-aged intellectual heterosexual Jewish guy who fantasizes about his dental technician but is afraid she comes from a rabidly anti-Semitic family. He also is obsessed with that likable but anxious intellectual heterosexual Jewish neurotic Franz Kafka. Each of Meyers's three stories begins as a lecture about Kafka, but each goes awry as digressions and random stories from Meyers's personal life pop up in the discourse. In Looking for Franz Kafka his professed "search for Kafka" becomes a comically pathetic exercise in self-deprecation, as Meyers compares his own hopeless love for the unnamed dental hygienist with Kafka's notoriously unlucky love life.
As in Rago's work, surreal moments that Meyers once realized onstage are now merely described. In Kafka's Dream Meyers describes one of Kafka's recorded dreams, in which his mother tries to compensate for Kafka having castrated and disemboweled himself by filling his body with bread. But the very change that makes Rago's work seem more distant makes Meyers's more accessible. He seems much more fully a part of his work now that he isn't distracting us with visual images and other actors. It helps that Meyers has the very Reagan-esque gift of sounding like he knows exactly what he means even when the imagery--rings of people floating Chagall-like over Prague, crowds of shoes representing people--is so densely packed it's almost opaque.
Carmela Rago's question from the early 80s--"Why is Anais Nin so full of herself?"--came back to me the other day while I was watching Michael H. Brownstein fumble his way through his latest one-man show, Let's Order Grasshopper 'Cause Everything Else Tastes Like Chicken, a tiresome collection of allegedly autobiographical accounts of his life on the front lines as a teacher in the Chicago Public Schools.
In these stories Brownstein invariably stumbles into some horrifying urban situation--confronting a murderous gang member, getting shot at from a high-rise housing project. But through a combination of luck and obliviousness he comes out OK--he's like a cartoon character sleepwalking through sawmills or busy intersections and emerging without a scratch. Time and again Brownstein finds himself saying with false modesty, "Aw shucks, I didn't even know my life was in danger." In the highrise story, he asks us to believe that he thought the bullets whizzing by his ears were bees. "Why is Michael Brownstein so full of himself?" I kept asking myself.
As a performer he's a rank amateur. He swallows his words, strikes odd poses, and mutters the crucial last lines of stories. In earlier shows Brownstein made up for his lack of polish with his tales' veracity. His unprofessional delivery actually added to the believability of his reminiscences. I remember in particular one story about a very tough inner-city school where a principal all but told Brownstein how to get away with whacking his unruly kids (wrap the ruler in masking tape and it won't leave a bruise). This time, however, Brownstein seems to have turned himself into an urban tall-tale hero, part Paul Bunyan, part Davy Crockett, part John the Conqueror, and his show suffers as a result.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.