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Sprung

Barrie Cole

at the Chopin Theatre, through October 17

By Carol Burbank

Rage seems to be the common emotion of the last decades of the 20th century. Think of the LA riots, road rage, school-yard-shootings, handgun proliferation, and the brooding nods of therapists who help us express our anger constructively. Along with its sister, fear, rage is big news.

The signal examples of rage in the theater would be Sam Shepard's

cowboy-culture diatribes: they fill the stage with brutal beauty, rambling toward the immolation of family, marriage, manhood, and honor with such literary control that we enjoy the inevitable demise of these icons. And there's a whole herd of contemporary writers and solo performers queued up behind Shepard--little explosions waiting for a place to pop, an audience to infect. Christopher Durang, Eric Bogosian, Luis Alfaro, Reno, Tim Miller, Guillermo Gomez-Pe–a: there are so many outrageous styles in this millennial fashion show.

Blunt, baroque, and even whimsical, stories of contemporary rage usually reflect the writer's personal disappointments or politicized despair. A classic like Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman still has power even though the playwright's trademark tools--moral disappointment and repressed anger--are outmoded in today's theater. Instead, a volcanic sense of betrayal drives contemporary theatrical pieces, a cultural agitation with no known bromide. At its most basic, such theater is a primal scream. At its most beautiful, it's a waltz with death that spins the audience breathless.

Barrie Cole is more complex, less predictable than her predecessors. Her solo work is powered by a tightly wound spring of words: athletic metaphors and a fearless directness waltz us through doom into her own peculiar wilderness. Her work is difficult to categorize because it has its fingers in lots of pies--personal stories, political observation, even a kind of funky punk moral indignation. Cole's intelligence is a little hurricane that sweeps up her pieces into an elemental rage barely contained by flurries of images and repeated phrases. Sometimes she seems a hybrid of Gertrude Stein and Kali, exulting in the musicality of language even as she breaks the world open like a rotten egg.

Her four monologues in Sprung deal with different kinds of competition: gossip, sibling conflicts, sports, and courtship. She rips stories out of these spheres, then reweaves them into a crazy quilt of contemporary culture. In each one she explores the workings of language itself, engaging in what the program accurately describes as "linguistic rampages and gymnastics." (Each program also includes a guest artist; the night I saw the show, it was Michael Martin, whose rather incomplete experiment was overshadowed by Cole's work.)

I saw Cole perform "Chit Chat Chit," which indicts the dangerous pleasures of gossip, at the "Beast Women" festival this year. It's still a head rush. She veers from cartoonishly demure ingenuousness to a guttural viciousness that becomes almost comic as her pace increases. At first she merely sits and watches the audience, smiling blandly until she leans forward, thrusts out her tongue in a yoga stretch, and roars. Her transformation is the metaphor for the gossip's role throughout the piece, as she plays a telltale at a party: her stories escalate until they become ridiculous, then surreal, and finally incomprehensible, degenerating into babble and a concluding roar. Cole is particularly good at turning speech into nonsense in "Chit Chat Chit," spreading her mouth wide and enunciating every word of some story about a snake-handling woman who keeps hundreds of birds, nodding and pursing her lips as she emphasizes that every word is the plain truth: "No no no no no, I never lie."

"The Video" is a more conventional narrative, a story about Cole's 12-year-old sister stealing a pornographic video from a box in the family's basement. The script's detail and strange twists into verbal cul-de-sacs about family secrets make this a surprising and intimate journey. The theft provokes an outpouring so heartfelt it would be a confession if it weren't so diffuse and unselfconscious. Cole describes her sister's early and obsessive sexual awakening, her father's stinginess and loyalty, and her own explosive rage when she's falsely accused. The plain language and bug-eyed intensity of her performance made me believe I was seeing the adolescent Cole as she shouts, "You better tell him it was you, you better better better better tell him, because I am not getting in trouble for this, because if it wasn't me, which it wasn't, it was you!"

My favorite piece, though, is "Arena," a fantasia revolving around sports cliches. Cole's use of frenzied repetition is more sophisticated here: she combines adages from war movies and sports broadcasting with lunatic-sounding descriptions of Eskimo competitions. The intelligent, almost anthropological tone of the script contrasts brilliantly with Cole's enraged, adrenaline-stoked performance. She enters wearing a hodgepodge of sports gear, from football to boxing, the flapping sides of a loose shoulder brace slipping forward to resemble an extra set of breasts. "I have put on my uniform and I have entered the arena," she announces. Then she proceeds to battle unseen enemies at breakneck speed, interview herself about her victories and courage, and injure herself in a frenzy of self-destruction, collapsing in a panting heap.

Finally, in "Wood Box," she demands to be wooed by her lover, invoking the colorful, multiscented mating displays of mammals and birds as examples. Disgusted by his self-protectiveness, she calls it his "very very very very...very very wooden box." I loved the courageous excess of her language: in a near climax of frustration she shouts, "Where are your feathers? Where is your throat sack? Where is your vibrating claw? Where is your thundering cry?" Few performers can get away with the redundancies of such rhetoric, but Cole's committed wildness compels us to listen. Yet, despite her exciting, well-researched compendium of animal displays, the script feels too full: she expends equal energy berating the wooden man and trying to heal him. This piece has no resolving explosion and no sustained outrageous disarray, only a carefully structured, often beautiful array of metaphors.

Cole's rages can break apart stage conventions as easily and forcefully as they break up the language. She earns her well-choreographed madness in "Arena," shouting, "You have to have a sense of what is beautiful, and what is true, and what is right, because out there they can kill you. I swear to God they can." Refusing to die the little deaths of easy answers and small catharses, Cole makes her words into land mines and refuses to watch her step.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): still by Curtis Staiger.

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