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Fillet of Solo Festival

Live Bait Theater,

through August 25

By Justin Hayford

Solo performance sometimes seems the bastard child of "real" theater. Solo artists typically wind up with late-night or off-night gigs, often on someone else's set under someone else's lights. Chicago monologuists have learned that if they want to do their work in theaters instead of galleries, rehearsal spaces, and living rooms, they have to wedge themselves into ill-fitting impromptu slots.

At Live Bait Theater, however, artistic director Sharon Evans has always made room for monologuists during prime time on the main stage--perhaps because she was once a performance artist herself. She opened the doors of her theater 13 years ago with a six-week run of James Grigsby's solo piece Terminal Madness--at a time when local artists were lucky to pull a one-weekend gig in a bare-bones gallery. Over the years she's produced nearly all the city's solo royalty. So when Live Bait began its Fillet of Solo Festival five years ago, it seemed a natural outgrowth of the company's mission rather than a grab for new funding and audiences.

Nearly all the work on the festival's opening weekend was autobiographical, reflecting a longtime Chicago trend. On the main stage, Susan McLaughlin Karp's Still and Mark Gagne's Never the Straight Man offer extended glimpses into their authors' lives. But where Karp casts herself as an ordinary woman caught up in extraordinary circumstances, Gagne adopts an extraordinary posture in order to discuss his rather ordinary life.

Karp first appears seated atop a large, translucent blue exercise ball, dressed in an unpressed shirt and loose pants. Her red bob is perfunctorily combed. She sits silently for a moment, doing nothing. Were it not for her curious perch, you might think she'd stumbled onstage by accident. But in the few seconds before she begins to speak, she stares at the audience with such intensity, her blue eyes seemingly lit from within, that it becomes instantly clear this person has an urgent need to say something--and to say it to us.

Then she begins bouncing childishly on the ball and talking about her television habits. She refuses to watch daytime programs for fear of being sucked into the miasmic bathos of women's shows, she explains. "I never watch television before five o'clock," she says, "so I can call myself culturally elite." But one day back in January of 1997, she found herself mesmerized as Oprah taught her studio audience the macarena. Repelled by the cheesiness, she was also moved to tears by the simulated solidarity. That sudden emotional lability, she believes, was the first sign of her pregnancy.

Next she walks upstage to a small table, picks up a letter, and reads it aloud. The letter is from her doctor and explains in clinical prose the end result of her pregnancy: "Fetal death has occurred." The cause is uncertain. Karp picks up a pitcher, pours herself a glass of water, and takes several enormous gulps, as though she'd been emptied and were trying to fill herself back up.

In the opening two minutes of Still, Karp and director Stephanie Shaw ingeniously establish its approach: time is anything but linear, segments follow one another by association rather than logic, and small, ordinary gestures can be powerfully significant. Above all, Karp's graceful movement and reserved speech suggest a careful, deliberate persona, someone who will lay out details in a thoughtful manner and keep us safe no matter how harrowing those details become.

It may seem odd that Karp gives away the end--that her baby will be stillborn--but it's one of many smart decisions she makes during this surreal montage. Had she kept the outcome a secret until late in the show, she would have been hard-pressed to avoid manipulative-seeming melodrama. In fact Karp almost never gets herself worked up--the lone exception being the reenactment of her excruciating labor, which she screams through while splashing wildly in a kiddie pool. Instead she recalls her experiences from the safety and maturity of the present. Like the poetry of Wallace Stevens, Karp's piece is moving because she seems removed from the emotions she describes; no longer overwhelmed, she can surrender those emotions to the audience, evoking them with precise, rich details.

The emotion Karp mainly describes is bewilderment, both during her pregnancy and after. When an excess of amniotic fluid makes her balloon to over 200 pounds, she loses her sense of identity, and her sexuality becomes a forgotten whim. And when an ultrasound at 37 weeks reveals that her baby has died, she can do nothing but "wait to give birth to my daughter's death." After the stillbirth, she returns to a house flooded with food--gift trays that overrun her home like creeping culinary monsters.

The structure of Still reflects Karp's bewilderment. Like memories surfacing in the middle of the night, episodes stop and start abruptly, making no chronological sense. And her generally composed demeanor adds another layer of strangeness--she seems so accustomed to events that must once have seemed so foreign.

What finally brings the fragments of Karp's story together is the memory of her first contraction, which rips through her like an earthquake. Remembering sitting alone on the toilet in the hospital, she's thrown headfirst into herself for the first time in the evening. Nothing can draw her attention away from this tumultuous experience, and in that instant Still changes completely. Three-quarters of the way through, Karp's tale comes into excruciating focus as she describes, moment by moment, her labor and delivery and their aftermath. And because she's kept the audience somewhat disoriented up to this point, her sudden clarity is crushing.

For most of us the scene is unimaginable: going through the agonies of labor in order to give birth to a child you know is dead. With her husband, parents, and in-laws present, she delivers her daughter in an inexplicably beautiful moment. Then they wrap the baby in a pink sleeper and begin the unfathomable process of saying good-bye to someone they never had a chance to know. When Karp finally lets the baby go, by simply rolling the blue ball offstage, the effect is devastating.

Still is astonishing, avoiding every bathetic snare while effortlessly capturing the nuances of an agonizing experience. As distressing as Karp's material may be, it's exhilarating to watch a performer recover her life so artfully.

Like Karp, Gagne adopts a rather matter-of-fact manner in Never the Straight Man. For the better part of an hour he tells simple stories of growing up gay in and around Boston. But unlike Karp, he casts himself as something of an outsider. He was born a freak, he explains--half-French, half-Greek--and he spent his childhood nurturing his decidedly unmanly imagination. While his boyhood friend Larry dreams of "being a fucking machine fucking women," Gagne dreams of "pastures and people chasing me." His home life is marked by extreme sexual repression; his mother is mortified when his brother holds hands with his fiancee. "I was a Tennessee Williams character trapped in a Eugene O'Neill play," he quips.

Gagne's adolescent stories are familiar to most gay men: fending off classmates' epithets, trying to survive the sexual tumult of senior prom, plotting an escape to college and perceived sexual freedom. And during the first half of Never the Straight Man Gagne's wry, poker-faced delivery lends some freshness to these vignettes. But when he begins to describe his early adulthood as a struggling comedian and improviser, his unique point of view all but disappears and the piece flattens. Rather than a series of sharply observed moments, the show feels like one thing after another, without discernible shape or a meaningful conclusion.

In the Bucket, Live Bait's tiny second stage built especially for solo performers, David Kodeski hosts a grab bag of short monologues, all of them new. And on opening weekend the contents favored the show's weaknesses. The greenest performers, Quincy Wong and Sergi Bosch, each presented two pieces while veterans Kodeski, Edward Thomas-Herrera, and Stephanie Shaw presented only one apiece, making for a rather frustrating evening.

Wong and Bosch haven't yet found their voices as monologuists and struggled to create rapport with the audience. Wong seems particularly ill at ease, working overtime to connect with his own material. His aim in both pieces is to challenge stereotypes about Chinese-Americans: in the first he tries to transform himself into a quicksilver menace like his idol, Bruce Lee, and in the second he attempts to skewer racial stereotypes by transforming himself into the meek, smiling Hop Sing from Bonanza. But for the most part his observations are superficial.

Drawing from a longer work, No Se, No Se, Bosch presents character studies of a young woman who married rich and now feels empty and of her brother, whose father catches him smoking pot. A former stand-up, Bosch strings together bits with somewhat aimless prattle. As an actor, he tends to adopt a dozen mannerisms where one would suffice; we know the woman is nervous, for example, because she fiddles with her hands, smooths her skirt, and twirls her hair every three seconds. If he can stop fidgeting long enough to put his ideas across, Bosch might develop into a performer worth watching.

Shaw, Kodeski, and Thomas-Herrera are always worth watching. Shaw's new piece, Driving My Dead Aunt's Car, hasn't yet come together, but its elements--the thrill of furtive sex with her husband while their kids watch cartoons downstairs and the dreariness of collecting memorabilia from her aunt's house--are rich in detail and associations. Thomas-Herrera delivers a blisteringly coy monologue about his performing stint at a fund-raiser for the Goodman Theatre's new work development board: he realizes he's nothing but a pawn in the effort to bring New York performers to Chicago. And Kodeski proves once again that he's the best storyteller in town, relating charming memories of squandered youth in Niagara Falls. (He tells a different story each week.) These three should do Chicago a favor and perform a whole lot more often.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Cynthia Howe/Suzanne Plunkett.

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