Straight Arrows | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Straight Arrows


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Wisdom Bridge

As an actress, Colleen Dodson is talented, energetic, intelligent, sparkling, perky, and polished, with a dancer's control over her incredibly flexible body, and a born mimic's ability to change her face and voice to imitate radically different characters. One minute she'll bend over and play a gravelly voiced, late-middle-aged theater usher. The next minute she'll uncurl her spine and soften her voice and become a young naif newly arrived in New York, expecting at any minute the big break that will make her a Broadway star.

Unfortunately, in her one-woman show Straight Arrows, Dodson the actress has tied her fortunes to Dodson the writer, whose talents are considerably less developed. And so Straight Arrows, which strives to be a complex tapestry of characters and stories, becomes an aimless collection of quick sketches. Dodson does quite well creating instant stage characters merely by changing her posture and facial expression, and by repeating one or two habits of speech, but she is not as good at creating characters who remain interesting the third or fourth time you see them. And after a while Dodson's actorly tricks become hollow and predictable.

Dodson the actress needs a solid script to provide some compelling reason for her characters to live beyond their initial, admittedly clever, creation--and for the audience to care about who they are and where they're going. Instead, we are given a seemingly endless series of short scenes--many of them far too short to give us anything but a glimpse of a character--pasted together in a collage that emphasizes the contrast between adjacent scenes and characters but fails to provide a coherent principle for the whole show.

Of course most comedy revues (including the much touted Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner collaborations) suffer from similar structural weaknesses. However, a successful comedy revue, like the early Marx Brothers' movies, will keep the audience too busy laughing to notice flaws in the structure or holes in the story. Dodson seems far less interested in going for a joke--there are surprisingly few laughs in the show--than in making some deeper statements about people and life in New York City (where she currently lives). But she lacks the class anger of the Marx Brothers or the strong, personal, secular-feminist worldview that adds unity and direction to Tomlin and Wagner's work.

Instead, Dodson is content to provide us, without comment or discernible point of view, a series of portraits: of an elderly theater usher, an advice-dispensing transsexual, a bubbleheaded whore, a young dancer trying to break into a chorus line, all of whom happen to live in New York. We never really know which characters Dodson likes, which she finds foolish, or which she thinks are wise. That's a fine way to treat people out here in the world. But characters who can't be labeled "good," "bad," "likable," or "unlikable" are not particularly interesting or dramatic. Which may explain why there is so little that is surprising in the show.

Certainly Dodson makes no startling observations about the characters she plays. How could she, since all too many of them seem vaguely reminiscent of other people's characters? Her drawling small-town mother who comes to New York City with her child in tow could have been lifted right from one of her friend Beth Henley's plays. Her energetic and likable but nevertheless dippy whore (who reacts to everything with a good-natured "whatever") has more than a little in common with Lily Tomlin's confused Chrissy (who says, "All my life I've always wanted to be somebody, but I see now I should have been more specific"). One of Dodson's characters--an upper-crust woman who's getting plowed on a mixed drink called an "orgasm"--acts and sounds remarkably like one of Nora Dunn's characters, Pat Stevens, made famous (if never particularly entertaining) on Saturday Night Live. What makes Dodson's use of familiar characters all the more disheartening is the realization that, as a native of Evanston, she must have plenty of interesting stories to tell about what it's like to move from Illinois to New York and actually make it on Broadway, where she created a role in the Tony Award-winning musical Nine.

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