Open Face | Performing Arts Sidebar | Chicago Reader
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OPEN FACE

El Squared Productions

at Live Bait Theater

Fridays and Saturdays through February 27

Open Face, a collection of short monologues pulled together by producer Linda Lofstrom, explores the way in which art and life transform each other. But the pieces, performed by their writers, vary wildly. According to Lofstrom's note in the program, all of the works focus on "a personal turning point; a growth spurt; a revelation"; nearly all of the artists have chosen to tell stories that seem pulled directly from their lives. But the soul-baring is by turns poignantly revealing and embarrassingly confessional.

Recounting a personal story requires a lot of a performer if the piece is to rise above the merely factual, quaint, or indulgent. In the most successful pieces the performers understand the importance of finding a clear point of view, of creating from a place of acceptance and understanding. However traumatic the event described, they have reached a level where they can find meaning in the experience. And in finding meaning they also find humor.

In "4 or 5 or 6," for example, Marcia Wilkie describes a yearlong love affair with a beautiful woman. Their relationship "looks so darn good," but like the stranger's glass eye she watches with fascination it isn't functional. Finally she wakes up in the middle of the night, realizing, "This isn't love. This is aesthetics." In the story Wilkie describes herself as impulsive, deeply entangled in this maddening love, yet as a performer she's economical, never wasting a gesture or a word. In this schism we clearly see the mature author laughing at the terrible truth of blind love, without belittling the deep feelings it creates.

Lofstrom takes a similar approach to the story of her first menstrual period, "Wanton Wallflower." While the pain of being a gawky undeveloped adolescent is everywhere, the adult performer can smile at the little girl who hoarded boxes of tampons hoping they would one day be needed. Like Wilkie, Lofstrom is an efficient performer, capturing great emotional complexity in deft images. Lofstrom creates an additional level of tension by telling her story in the third person, which calls its authenticity into question.

In "Getting Drunk With Jimmy," a video by Jim Carrane and Terry Miller, Carrane details the saga of his alcoholism in a series of ingeniously intertwined vignettes. Sitting in the same theater where we're sitting, he begins describing the antibeer commercial he planned to use to start the video. We're immediately thrown into that commercial, which is full of hackneyed Madison Avenue imagery and slick edits, while Carrane smiles, turns down a beer, and gives a thumbs-up. Then Carrane is shown sitting in what we assume is his apartment, talking intimately about his drinking problem, but this scene has as many jump cuts as the commercial. Suddenly he's walking down the street, explaining that his video was supposed to start with the commercial, but it won't. He goes into an ice cream shop and orders four vanilla malts, explaining that he's picking them up for people in his office, an obvious lie.

If the video's construction is clever and entertaining, Carrane's deadpan self-deprecation is wonderfully moving. He's pathetic without being self-absorbed or self-pitying, yet he stands outside the experience, seeing the patterns that emerge.

In all of these pieces the performers focus on telling details that pin down the reality of the stories and still allow for many more associations. A selective eye takes us through the experiences, showing us discrete images that suggest the larger emotions behind them. But the emotions belong to the story and not the storyteller: these artists keep a distance so that the audience can plunge in.

The other artists in the program take the opposite approach, and their pieces are much less successful. In Jonathan Lavan's "Michel and Father," Kevin Burrows's "The Meaning of Funerals," and Sheila Donohue and Ben Talbot's "This Is What You Left Us (Part Two)," the performers work themselves through the emotions of their stories, all of which deal with confronting death. The stories are all engaging, particularly Lavan's, in which a Transylvanian man describes in broken English his guilt over having wished his cancer-stricken friend dead. But all of the performers work themselves up to such emotional pitches that the audience is left with little to do. The emotions are genuinely felt, and if these monologues were part of larger dramatic scenes they might be quite compelling. But on their own no tension is created between the past experience and the lived present.

The other two pieces on the program, Mara Casey's "The Haircut" and Donohue's "The Boatmaker's Tale (Part One)," seem unfocused. (Due to a technical problem, only the last part of Lisa Buscani's video piece "Counting" was shown.) Casey, adopting the persona of a stripper, tells us about her alcoholic family, her abusive boyfriend, her lifelong need to be desired. It's all convincingly acted, but it doesn't take us beyond sound bites and self-help books. Donohue's piece, about her father's ludicrous attempt to "improve" a canoe by sawing off the back end and sticking on an engine, charmingly captures a child's inability to understand a parent. But the piece fades rather than ends.

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