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Bleeding Clear

at Cafe Voltaire


at Cafe Voltaire

If experience is the best teacher, Shea Nangle and Johnnie Morello have earned their doctorates. Judging from their new one-man shows at Cafe Voltaire, both have taken big, juicy bites out of life--though in Nangle's case it seems he's tasted little but gall--and both have learned to distill their personal stories to the engrossing essentials. In a city full of freshly graduated twenty-something actors seemingly un-marked by their existence, these well-worn veterans bring a weighty presence to the stage that no amount of collegiate theatrical training can duplicate.

To call Nangle one of life's veterans at the age of 22 may seem odd. But in his hour-long Bleeding Clear, he recites a litany of harrowing personal experiences, beginning in early childhood and running smack up to the present, that would have landed most of us in a psychiatric institution or an early grave. Nangle, however, has somehow remained on his feet and chronicled it all in excruciating detail. A neighborhood boy rapes him when he's only six, an experience he heartbreakingly enjoys because he imagines it makes him a big boy (he even goes running off to tell his mother about the "fun game" until the perpetrator violently stops him). By the time Nangle's a teenager he's dating Meredith, a sadistic 16-year-old who routinely ties him up and whips him with a riding crop. Nangle admits that he plays along, despite his revulsion and fear, because the alternative is to be alone. He rips through college on a drug- and alcohol-induced tear, at one point dousing his hand in grain alcohol and setting it on fire. By the end of the piece he's been brutally raped by another man who repeatedly calls him "bitch." He wakes the next morning to find his genitalia slashed and bleeding.

Nangle does inject a bit of poignant humor at times. In one of the piece's rare tender moments he and Meredith, desperately unable to express affection for each other, end up slow dancing for two hours at a club while clanging industrial music blares. But for the most part Nangle's self-portrait is relentlessly bleak--even the traditional safe zones most of us would depend upon in times of crisis are here littered with land mines. When Meredith's mother walks in on Nangle and finds him bound, naked, bruised, and helpless, for example, she simply laughs and goes back to whatever she was doing.

It would be easy to dismiss this work as pure self-pitying self-indulgence, but in truth Nangle never once asks for our sympathy. By traditional theatrical standards Bleeding Clear is an utter failure, rarely varying in tone, with a text like a verbal case of bad diarrhea. Nangle drones on and on in a flat, nasal whine, awkward and self-conscious, his arms racked with involuntary ticks. He can't even bring himself to look at the audience, keeping his eyes closed for almost the entire show.

But to criticize Bleeding Clear for these things is like criticizing a head-on collision for not being a ballet. Bleeding Clear is a horror show, and nothing--not even the performer's stage presence--detracts from the ugliness; the piece is unsparing and pure. Nangle clearly has no interest in entertaining, and he doesn't really want us to empathize. Yet his stance isn't at all aggressive or belligerent. At no time does he assault or offend his audience for their imagined complacency, as so many performers handling similar material do. Instead, like Karen Finley--whom he thanks in a program note--he simply bears witness to horror, reminding us just how dark the deepest recesses of the human soul are.

Nangle's only self-consciously theatrical choice is to place himself as far from his audience as possible in Voltaire's tiny underground performance space; there he's pinned under three harsh white lights like the victim of his own interrogation. The great gulf of darkness that separates Nangle from his audience gives the piece a necessary sense of scale. Removed from us, chiseled against the dark, Bleeding Clear is revealed in all its horrifying clarity.

Morello's performance style couldn't be more different. While Nangle fidgets uncomfortably, seething with youthful disdain, Morello purrs lusciously into a handheld microphone, all hipness, subtlety, and charm. His act flows as smoothly as single malt scotch, and he seems blessed by the mellowing effects of time. If he were a piece of clothing, he'd be your father's favorite old sweater.

But like Nangle, Morello has an eye for the telling detail and a knack for turning his personal life into fascinating theater. SOME noBODIES, billed as "nine short stories, rants and portraits of of little consequence" (most of them based on the author himself) is more smoky jazz set than play, complete with live keyboard accompaniment by Sue Stevens. While Morello's vignettes about hapless moments of disgrace flow logically and thematically, they've also been assembled according to their tempi and tone. Meanwhile his playful, jaded autobiographical riffs push the show forward: He tells of passing the time in a doctor's office waiting for a testicular exam, for example, by looking for things he can steal. He writes on a job application "I have squandered my life" and adds that he was fired from his previous position after molesting his secretary.

These autobiographical sections, full of the mischievous cynicism and lyric play of Spalding Gray, are like a driving, bluesy seventh chord that repeatedly resolves into a more measured and candid tonic when Morello impersonates his sweet, lost "nobodies." One of them wants to become a mortician because "there's no small talk." Another dreams of playing in the NBA but settles for the Postal Service league. A third, perhaps retarded, says through a beaming smile, "It would be heaven to work in a record store. You have to know the alphabet, and I already have it memorized."

Morello's delicately shaded, effortlessly embodied creations seem more like parts of himself than separate characters, giving SOME no-BODIES a warm and personal feel. While Stevens's accompaniment is a bit too workmanlike to follow all of the intricate contours of the stories, live jazz accompaniment nicely underscores the musicality of Morello's voice. A smoky uptown nightclub and a glass of bourbon are all he needs to be where he truly belongs.

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