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The Debutante Ball

Victory Gardens Theater, through August 10

Toteroonie...the Show for the Inner Child in You

Second City E.T.C., through August 26

By Justin Hayford

Aunt Joan stands slouched in her kitchen rhapsodizing over her cooking utensils. "Oh! I gotta tell you about this cake pan!" she drawls, flicking away an armada of crumbs from the counter before her. She got the pan somewhere or other, and who can say how old it is? Her eyes twinkle at the mystery. She smears silver polish over its dented surface while reliving thrilling memories of an old strainer and someone else's potato pan.

These are the opening moments of Cindy Caponera's new one-woman show, The Debutante Ball. The title is as ironic as they come: like the seven other characters in the piece, Aunt Joan wouldn't know a wrist corsage from a taffeta bustier. A woman mired in trivialities, she's chained to domestic routine and entertained by the most implausible gossip. A friend's husband had cancer, she explains while taking swipes at yet another dozen crumbs moving in on her, and when the surgeon opened him up and the air hit his tumor, the cancer spread from head to foot just like that. She tries to keep her own cancer-stricken husband, Sharkey, entertained as he disintegrates in an offstage room, but we can see she couldn't find an interesting topic of conversation if her life depended on it.

By rights, this should be the dullest opening in the history of theater. Why, then, is Aunt Joan so endearing, so entertaining, so fascinating? The answer is simple: because she's real in a way most stage characters only approximate. It's clear that Caponera loves Aunt Joan with every fiber of her being and uses every ounce of her considerable talent to bring her to life. Aunt Joan's horizons may be limited, Caponera shows us, but she sinks her big, indecorous heart into the mess of her life, giving the tiniest moments poignancy and richness. When you've spent the last quarter century cooking for the man you love only to watch him rot from inside, a cake pan becomes the priceless relic of a sacred duty faithfully performed.

Amid the crush of playwrights and solo performers who delight in ridiculing society's less moneyed (read "trailer-park types"), squeezing ugly humor from classist notions of taste and propriety, Caponera stands out like Mother Teresa on The PTL Club. Which is not to say The Debutante Ball is sanctimonious. Caponera may have created a world prone to soft-focus Hallmarkification--her other characters are the women coming to Aunt Joan's potluck dinner--but she hasn't cropped the gritty, human details. There's the young woman sitting in a confessional spinning her rosary like a propeller, telling the priest she needn't confess to stealing a tube of Chap Stick because "it's Chap Stick, I could make it at home." There's the steely suburban housewife saddled with too many kids, too much laundry, and a husband who keeps disappearing for days on end (all the houses on the block look the same, she rationalizes, so sometimes he goes home to the wrong one). And there's the frantic addict whose life is a series of "accidental" criminal disasters. "I went downstairs for a Fudgsicle and ended up having sex for money," she shrugs.

With disarming humor, Caponera paints meticulous portraits of women living powerless lives. Few have much money. None has anyone to rely on. The forces of chaos stalk them every day. Without turning maudlin or preachy, Caponera shows us what these women do just to get by. One is a go-go dancer who spends her nights wiggling in a cage; when a condescending man in a suit stares pitifully, she snaps, "Let me guess. You work in a cubicle?" Another is a fumbling, emotionally labile poet schlepping through her days as a waitress. She tells a half-interested coworker, "Sometimes when I'm starting to recite a poem, people think I'm starting a conversation, that's how real my work is."

The poet is emblematic of Caponera's characters. All create monuments out of minutiae--from bad poetry to cake pans to the comments of a passing stranger ("Once a black man told me I have a great ass," the suburban housewife declares, as if proving her worth as a woman as well as her errant husband's stupidity). Yet at base, each woman stakes her faith in nothing but herself. So when the poet extols the grandeur of her own work, she doesn't seem arrogant or overbearing; she's delighting in her ability to make herself feel she matters, a feeling she gets from almost nothing else in her life.

Caponera performs with consummate economy, aided by the scrupulous direction of Shira Piven. Every actor who's howled through Hamlet or sprinted through Streetcar could learn from Caponera just how little it takes to create truth onstage. Of course, the little that appears in this premiere is the result of careful editing. A veteran of Second City, Caponera knows how to create a world through a gesture, a character's essence in a phrase or glance. Moreover, she knows how to keep an evening on track, paying as much attention to rhythm and structure as character.

Most surprising, however, is that Caponera places her realistic portraits in a nearly surreal world. Characters can meld together in a heartbeat. Sometimes they're intentionally indistinguishable. Often characters blurt out non sequiturs as if making meaningful points. Defending her credibility, the poet says, "You know, before I started expressing myself poetically--I managed a Hyatt." The strung out addict keeps everyone around her from using the pay phone by explaining, "I'm waiting for my bookie to call. If my horse comes in, I get my kids back." Such moments give The Debutante Ball an unpredictable giddiness that allows the show to glide through its 70 minutes.

Caponera never belabors a point--in fact, she never seems to make a point at all. Rather, she lets the slow accumulation of overlooked lives build into a thrilling portrait of extraordinary ordinariness.

Abby Schachner, a relative neophyte in the Second City circle, could learn a lot from Caponera: her acting abilities, comic timing, and writing skills can't yet support a full evening. Billed as "the show for the inner child in you," her one-woman Toteroonie might have had promise if she'd approached it with the irreverence her title suggests. But apparently, having survived a rough childhood, her parents' divorce, and an eating disorder, she takes pop psychology with deadly seriousness--and imagines that just about any aspect of her life is stageworthy. The piece feels more like a sketch for a group-therapy session than a work of art.

The show has two fundamental problems. First, the symbology is generally confused and superficial. For example, Schachner seeks guidance from a shrink-wrapped piece of Swiss cheese, which she addresses as "holy one." Beyond the obvious pun, the decision to turn a chunk of cheese into her spiritual leader is arbitrary. Second, Schachner's children's-show aesthetic, which she plays inconsistently, is a thin disguise for the obvious points she wants to make. She dresses up as Pirate Patty, for example, so that she can tell us her pirate parents stole things--like her childhood.

Schachner doesn't leave the audience much to do except feel bad about her difficult life and cheer her progress in dealing with it. On several occasions she tells the Swiss cheese that doing the show makes her feel better; what the audience might be feeling seems an afterthought. In the final moments she dances with an enlarged studio portrait of herself as a toddler, proudly announcing that she has "found her." On opening night she cried her way through the scene. I don't question the emotional truth of her reaction, but onstage it looks cheap and manipulative nonetheless. It isn't becoming for an artist to be quite so fascinated with herself.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): The Debutant Ball still.

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