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BINGO BALLS

Donna Jagielski-Miller

at Cafe Voltaire, August 18

One has to wonder about the inner workings of Donna Jagielski-Miller's mind. And one has to marvel at how she could create a performance incorporating dance, slides, audience participation, and household products, focusing on one--and only one--subject: balls.

Big blue ones, homemade ones, spiritual ones, the ones that hang between male legs--Miller's performance leaves no ball unturned. She mixes some up using cornstarch and glue. She dances with them. She reads people's "spiritual balls." She shows family photo after family photo of herself as a child, always with a ball at her side. And in the process she manages to impart a bit of her Zen philosophy about balls without sounding new age, corny, or pretentious.

Bingo Balls is a very odd show, exhilaratingly so. Jagielski-Miller takes a big risk building a performance entirely around her fascination with balls, but by the end of the show no one in the theater will ever be able to look at balls the same way again.

And isn't that one of the goals of art? To change the way a person views a certain object, even if it's just a ball? Jagielski-Miller seems to be a greenhorn in the performance world, but she accomplishes something few seasoned performers do. Bingo Balls has the fresh quality of naive art: unadulterated by the hyperbole and politics that dominate the scene. She simply does what feels right to her, and in doing so creates one of the most interesting alternative shows to hit Chicago in a long time.

That's not to say Bingo Balls is perfect. For starters, Jagielski-Miller has an annoyingly nasal midwestern accent. On top of that she speaks in a phony voice, similar to the tone adults adopt when they think they're telling something very interesting to children. But then she gives herself cornball lines that seem well suited to that voice, like "Household products can be very useful when creating things, especially in science class" and "Order your Buster Balls today so you can bust some balls tonight!" Her genuine desire to communicate her unusual perspective ultimately makes her voice endearing.

She blends the practicalities of her fascination with the mystical, the sexual with the autobiographical. In one segment she sits on the floor and mixes together acetone and green Styrofoam to make what she calls a soft ball, explaining the process like a chef talking to a cooking class. In another she shows slides of herself as a child while playing a recording of an interview with her mother about her lifelong obsession with balls. She sounds like a fourth-grader reading from a script she wrote out on loose-leaf paper, and her mother is adorable as she answers the questions in a tone that suggests she's answered them a million times but loves the memories.

In the most amusing segment of the evening she describes a dream she had about bingo balls in a church basement. She was like Vanna White, she says, pulling balls out of a box and calling the numbers out to an invisible group of bingo players. But each ball also corresponded to the name of a man, and about halfway through she realized they were the names of her past boyfriends.

She passes bingo cards to the audience and calls out numbers, then reads a male name and makes a comment such as, "George's balls are jingling gifts that would strike like vengeful gods." She performs a dance, pulls a ball out of a jar, lets it fall to the floor, then goes back to pull out a different number and name.

Jagielski-Miller doesn't try to be any one thing, and that's what makes her performance so appealing. She has a sly wit: "This is why I was always near a male figure with a ball in my hand and my mouth occupied." But she also says things like, "Find the rhythm in the balls. They have one inside them all their own." Balls, she suggests, are not the simple spherical objects we take them to be. "Whether exterior or in your heart, everyone has balls," she says just before reading the audience's as one would read tarot cards. By the end of the evening there seems to be a strange truth to this statement.

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