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Love & Sin: A Solo Experience

at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, through July 7

Several years back--when Brigid Murphy and Cheryl Trykv were battling cancer and monologuists Lisa Buscani, Paula Killen, Mark Roth, and Marcia Wilkie had left town--the demise of Chicago's once thriving solo performance scene seemed imminent. Lawrence Steger's death in February 1999 mimicked the departure of the bohemian performance scene he'd helped create, and by the time the great James Grigsby passed away two months ago it seemed no one could be bothered to mourn his absence.

But now two artists who cut their teeth in the performance scene two decades ago are in a position to give it a high-profile boost. Steppenwolf artistic associate Curt Columbus, who directed many of Sharon Evans's early pieces, and Steppenwolf artistic director Martha Lavey, who presented her own enigmatic work as a member of the under-the-radar company Oxygen Jukebox, have brought together some of the city's finest solo performers in the monthlong minifestival, Love & Sin: A Solo Experience. The event consists of two different programs--"Love," featuring Jenny Magnus, Trykv, and Lusia Strus, playing Thursdays and Saturdays; and "Sin," featuring Ian Belknap, Bryn Magnus, and rotating guests, on Fridays and Sundays. With such primal themes explored by a variety of astute artists, the shows reveal the best, worst, and most common aspects of our human natures, making for disarmingly engaging theater.

The women in "Love" have all been on the Chicago scene for about 15 years, and their experience is apparent. The pieces feel as though they've been distilled to their essence, and the performers barely have to raise their voices to keep an audience rapt. In What Abandon Meant, Magnus's seven-part opening meditation on love and discomfort, she enters the space with an enormous black futon rolled up on her back, staggering under its weight. She dumps it unceremoniously on the floor, then falls backward onto it as though desperate for comfort. But immediately she scrambles off it, grunting and squirming, her entire body and psyche one annoying itch. She repeats this ritual twice, and by the time she's done it's perfectly clear that the futon is a metaphor for love.

Then she begins to explain her "private little trick" for keeping men "intrigued": she grabs them by their feet and drags them around the room. "I give them a great ride," she says, "whipping them around, sharp corners and momentous arcs. It's the best ride, once they really give in to it." But soon they begin to feel rug burn against their backs, which plunges them into agony, she says, and once she's sure the burn is "deep enough" she lets them go. The men try to comfort themselves, but the burns "are in that one place you can't reach yourself," and eventually scars form there--the spot where, Magnus explains, men once had their wings.

It's a beguiling opening that establishes the theme she'll twist into variations over the next 20 minutes: the deep interconnections linking desire, childishness, suffering, and trust. As she did in her 1995 solo work The Willies, which also used a mattress as a central set piece, Magnus adopts different personas for each of the ensuing poetic monologues. As a mildly frazzled woman she insists that she "has to have it every day," has to have it exactly the way she wants it, and that if someone else has it instead of her she can't help believing "that's why I didn't have it, and that's just wrong." As a serene, stately matron she goes through life with a knife stuck in the middle of her back, content that despite the pain the knife is right where it belongs. As a giddy adolescent she runs off to her "beautiful place," hanging a tire on a rope at just the right height, so she can lie on the ground and feel the swinging tire repeatedly graze that spot on her back she can't reach herself.

Peppering the piece with languid, chantlike songs, Magnus weaves a mysterious tapestry in which that unreachable spot on the back becomes the central image. That's the part, Magnus suggests, that makes the presence of others indispensable--even if the "other" is an old tire. Remaining self-sufficient leaves one forever wounded, like the woman with the knife in her back. But giving over that part of ourselves, as the men Magnus drags around the floor learn, can leave us feeling burned. As she concludes the piece by falling again and again onto the futon, Magnus admonishes us, "Don't hesitate, thinkin', thinkin', should I shouldn't I should I shouldn't I go go go." But even after she finally settles in on the futon, gently singing "I'll close my eyes and take the consequences," she is a lone woman lying on a bare, comfortless mattress, giving the piece a complex and satisfying irresolution.

Cheryl Trykv then leads the audience deeper into the mist of indeterminacy with Operation Stay Free, a work that takes obfuscation to new heights. In characteristic fashion, Trykv adopts the pose of a self-absorbed, emotionally unstable New Age mystic whose sense of logic seems to have been warped beyond repair. Nothing in this alluring woman's reality is stable, and in the course of the piece her link to the waking world becomes more and more tenuous. She's here to talk about the laws of creation, she says, and to help us find the golden thread that weaves substance out of nothingness. And somehow she imagines she will accomplish this feat by telling us of her encounter with the Squirrel King--"this Victor of the Order of Low"--and his menacing entourage in the park.

Trykv's tale is hysterically and unapologetically opaque, even as she adopts the language of lucidity. "Long story short," she will suddenly announce, as though anything she's said resembles a linear narrative. And when she's finally done somehow weaving her way from squirrel attacks to the big bang, she insists, "Tonight is about getting to the point, and getting there quick." But behind Trykv's cool absurdity lies a childlike acceptance of the fantastic, an eagerness not only to believe that a squirrel with a bit of twisted wire stuck on its head is a king but to accept its amorous advances. The opposites Trykv unites are logic and illogic, reality and fantasy, belief and disbelief, creating a kind of preverbal worldview most of us lost after age one.

After Trykv's far-flung fable, Lusia Strus's straightforward, purely autobiographical It Ain't No Fairy Tale shines. She opens by explaining that she's about to get married and wonders if love can last a lifetime. The cynics among us might feel compelled to run screaming from such a potentially saccharine premise, but Strus keeps things richly human by laying out the irreconcilable contradictions of her impending nuptials. Love is like a bubble that delights a child but stains an adult's $3,000 Vera Wang dress. Love is like a fairy tale, full of shiny princesses and bloodied peasants. Sixty-eight percent of marriages end in divorce within eight years, yet she cherishes her unrivaled collection of bridal magazines.

It helps that she's able to root her love in the most pedestrian of places: a diner in Las Vegas where one day her fiance ate an omelette, "and I realized I could look at that for the rest of my life." Then she has her parents' lifelong love to inspire her, a relationship that began in communist Lithuania amid various blacklists, food deprivations, and travel restrictions and ended in a modest Chicago bungalow where her father rotted away from cancer. Strus paints their story in exquisite detail. Her father, a truck driver for a meat company, wanted his wife to believe he had an important office job, so he donned a suit before bidding her good-bye each morning, then stopped at a gas station on the way to work to change into his uniform. His wife eventually discovered the uniform balled up in the bathroom vanity, but rather than questioning him about his deception, she simply pressed it for him.

It Ain't No Fairy Tale is expertly constructed and delivered with unwavering precision, commitment, and warmth. Strus remains nearly motionless throughout, yet her masterful text and laser-sharp delivery throw more vibrant hues across Steppenwolf's gray garage than the richest Technicolor film ever could. It will be a great loss to the city when she moves with her new husband to Las Vegas in a few months. As a wedding present I suggest every theater in town send her a set of keys so that she can come back and perform wherever and whenever she likes.

While "Love" may keep us in touch with our more respectable sides, Ian Belknap wants us to remember our more venal selves--the selves, he suggests, that we devote most of our time to even if we won't admit it. Clad in a bloodred smoking jacket and calling himself Mephistopheles, he insists that most of us could name the seven deadly sins, but few the accompanying cardinal virtues. Sin, he says, is interesting, and artists are "chock-full of the stuff."

Certainly the artists Belknap and Bryn Magnus assembled for their opening weekend were. Susan McLaughlin Karp posited slothfulness as her unwillingness to clean house or get a bikini wax. The haughtily insouciant Jeffrey Essmann imagined wrath as a necessary constant in his life; he even goes to anger-management classes to goad the enrollees. Sheila Donohue delivered a grotesque portrait of greed in her monstrous parody of Enron wife Linda Lay, who lives by the credo "Accumulation keeps your mind off asking why."

Belknap gave the first weekend its most harrowing moments, detailing how he abandoned his wife and child for a shot at Hollywood stardom in his monologue on pride, then chronicling a nightmarish journey into addiction for gluttony. Magnus brought the evening to a close with his take on lust, set in a smelting factory, in which he stares transfixed at a sexy woman, barely noticing the vicious industrial accidents that slaughter workers around him. As usual, Magnus's writing explodes with adventurous wordplay and riveting imagery. His one-sentence description of a woman's naked body may pack more erotic punch than all of D.H. Lawrence and Erica Jong combined.

Over its five-weekend run, "Sin" will feature a rotating roster of impressive local talent, including Barrie Cole, Paul Turner, Jim Carrane, Michael Martin, Jenny Magnus, and Greg Allen. For all its sordid and comical excess, the show keeps us focused on the most fundamental behaviors and impulses, bringing us closer to the shared humanity that can give live performance its profundity.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.

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