In the Wilderness/Jackie Taylor's Out Here on My Own | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

In the Wilderness/Jackie Taylor's Out Here on My Own 

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IN THE WILDERNESS

Organic Theater Company Greenhouse

In countless fairy tales an adolescent prince sallies forth into the dark, primeval forest where he meets a host of mysterious and sometimes dangerous creatures. By encountering the darker forces of nature--metaphorically the hidden recesses of his own psyche--the young hero learns to master himself and emerges from the wilderness an adult, ready to accept the responsibilities society places on him.

In her delightful one-person show, writer and performer Lindsay Porter turns this paradigm on its head. She begins In the Wilderness as a socialized adult trapped in a dead-end job, an unhealthy relationship, and an unsupportive family and must journey toward desocialization, by entering not uncharted territory but familiar terrain. She hops in her car and begins driving aimlessly through the midwest in search of personal landmarks. But what she seeks is ultimately as uncertain as the route she takes--the most she can say is that she wants "security that doesn't bore me to death."

Sitting in a rough-hewn wooden chair, with no props except a few candles and a book of letters written by a distant relative at the turn of the century, Porter leads us on an intentionally uneventful adventure--its very ordinariness is the greatest obstacle. In Troy, Ohio--an arch-Republican town where the mayor still dresses in mourning over George Bush's defeat--she meets her childhood friend, Johnny Bravo, now rich and wholly predictable. In Kansas, where she stays at the home of an old boyfriend, also newly rich, she's overwhelmed by the disquietingly middle-class sensation of domestic bliss as she washes dishes in a sunny kitchen. Other friends welcome her days later with steaks on the barbecue, a gesture so generous yet stupefyingly suburban she can hardly comprehend it.

In these episodes adulthood seems rich and secure but impersonal. The other extreme of the adult world is worse, rigid and out of touch with reality: born-again relatives who will not speak of their son's death from AIDS; a paranoid, abusive husband holed up with his wife in a log cabin in the middle of nowhere; stuffy "aristocrats" who refer to the town's only gay resident as "a bachelor." But neither extreme offers Porter any genuine reflection of herself, pushing her ever onward in the search for a true home.

Porter's performance throughout is economical, honest, and inviting. Her piece, directed with great precision by Meghan Strell, has been boiled down to its very essence as a travelogue, and she speaks to us as though we were gathered in her living room to see the slides she took on her vacation. Yet her meticulous delivery and intelligent script keep the performance from seeming informal or sloppy.

At her best, Porter reduces emotionally complex moments to simple, ironic images. After describing sex with Johnny Bravo in a night of drunken, drug-induced indulgence, she concludes: "Morning comes. I need to be punished." After letting us know that her relatives asked her never to tell anyone about their son's death from AIDS, she looks at us for a moment and announces, "Oops."

The piece is weakened when Porter tries to enhance an already rich image. During one of her first stops, for example, her grandfather invites her to "look around the house, take anything you want, I won't be here much longer." Instead of allowing this poignant moment to speak for itself, Porter goes on to say she's "searching for old truths" in the attic. Occasionally she overwrites, describing an unsuccessful relationship by saying, "We poured two and a half years into an empty glass."

But these lapses amount to a few weak links in an otherwise strong chain. Unlike most new works, which would benefit from judicious editing, In the Wilderness would benefit from some judicious beefing up. Porter's penchant for brevity means her piece feels a bit like a fascinating outline, with many opportunities to flesh out this archetypal journey. But when was the last time you left late-night theater wanting more? This 25-minute piece is an exciting beginning, and the Organic Greenhouse deserves kudos for giving it the soil in which to grow.

JACKIE TAYLOR'S OUT HERE ON MY OWN

Black Ensemble

While In the Wilderness is marked by economy, Jackie Taylor's Out Here on My Own is marked by excess. This two-and-a-half-hour showcase for Taylor is marred at nearly every turn by her self-aggrandizement. But perhaps my objectivity was impaired by an overblown, poorly edited program bio stating: "Ms. Taylor is one of the greatest performers of our times. She is a national as well as Chicago Treasure. . . . She has reached celebrity status having appeared quite frequently on the talk show circuit in numerous states including Ohio, Cleveland, New York and Minneapolis." Though the opening-night audience gave Out Here on My Own a tumultuous standing ovation, it seemed to me a star vehicle created by a performer who doesn't have the skills needed to perform it.

The piece is made up of excerpts from plays and musical and dance numbers framed by a kind of sermon, which Taylor wrote, telling us that "we gotta have faith, strength, and perseverance" and that "you deserve to feel good all the time." She even asks for the occasional "amen." Setting aside the fact that the ideas in these sermons are rather simplistic, as a framing device they're curiously ineffective. Everything in the show is presented in terms of struggle and pain, from the many songs (which Taylor also wrote) to the scenes she performs from such plays as Euripides' Medea, Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire, and Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler. This struggle is described in terms so generic ("You know, sometimes we hurt ourselves more than anybody else") that the description trivializes the scenes themselves. To see Medea as a woman in pain who takes her frustration out on her children is to dismiss the character's larger psychological and mythic dimensions, qualities that have made the play survive over many centuries. Instead the scenes seem mainly intended to showcase "some of [Taylor's] most memorable roles," as the press release states. And perhaps in the original productions they were effective, but in this show they seem overwrought and unfocused. Taylor's energy goes into dredging up pain rather than creating drama, and as a result the scenes have a uniform tone throughout.

Taylor's handful of original blues and gospel songs unfortunately illustrate that her voice lacks the power to make them engaging. While she can certainly capture the spirit of a blues singer--the gestures, the phrasing, the attitude--her instrument is neither expressive nor flexible enough to breathe much life into the songs. Taylor also includes two inexplicable dance solos, the first a Carmen Miranda-like number complete with whoops and cheers, and the second an imitation of a hip-hop music video. These dances make no sense in the context of the evening, and unfortunately Taylor's dancing is generally lackluster.

Most disturbing of all is the way the other actors and singers--Suzan Chatims, Angela Purdom, and Lee James--are used. Despite their obvious musical talents, in the musical numbers they remain clustered far upstage singing simplistic backup. Only once are they allowed center stage, where they wail in semidarkness while Taylor is off changing her costume. For the acting scenes they deliver their few lines either upstage in half-light or--adding insult to injury--offstage.

Ultimately Jackie Taylor's Out Here on My Own left me feeling sad, thinking that Taylor may actually believe the superlatives thrown about in her program. That kind of spiel may sway potential donors, but once it becomes internalized it can also pollute an artistic sensibility. Without proper restraints--she's not only the producer of this show but the producer and artistic director of the Black Ensemble--Taylor may be working on stardom to the detriment of her own talent.

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