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Revolving Troubadors

Rhino in Winter

at Link's Hall, through February 21

By Carol Burbank

The Rhino in Winter subdivision of the Rhinoceros Theater and Performance Festival started last week with a program of solo spoken-word performances by six of the usual suspects on the fringe scene: Abby Schachner, Greg Allen, Gabrielle S. Kaplan, Antonio Sacre, Judith Greer, and Bryn Magnus. An instructive, sometimes brilliant collection of stories and storytellers, this is an evening demonstrating the how-tos--and how-not-tos--of a certain kind of performance art, the monologue. As usual with the Rhino fest, many of the works are still in progress or very new, a fact that makes the hit-or-miss evening feel like an event. Some performers fell back on their charm or actorly habits to cover up glitches and rough edges, but the most interesting storytellers didn't bother to cover up--the rough edges were built in, an intriguing part of the performer's stage persona or aesthetic.

Greg Allen's painful, witty neo-futurist exercise My Father the Chair is a good example of rough edges played skillfully. After a startlingly casual, almost confrontational rendition of the song "Pennies From Heaven," he begins his story. While describing his father's life and death, he performs again and again an improvised, ultimately symbolic walk across the stage to sit on a chair, which cues the stage lights to go out; when he arrives back at his starting position, the lights go on again. This pattern of darkness and light both interrupts and structures his story, each blunt statement framed by a blackout to define a moment during his father's life, his crippling illness, or his relationship with his son.

This 20-minute performance was clearly a physical and emotional ordeal for Allen, who detailed his own and his father's deterioration, discussing the culmination of family dysfunction in plain language free of dull mental-health jargon. In fact, the story is so plainly told it would have been minimalist without the continual intervention of Allen's movement into the chair. Each time he approaches it he finds a different way of arriving at the inevitable moment of darkness.

When he's describing his father's imminent death, Allen's comic reluctance to sit becomes almost slapstick; he even trades chairs with an audience member to see if he can keep the stage lit. Finally, when coyness turns to rage and then acceptance, the rules are reversed--when Allen sits, the stage is lit. This ending, as the game turns in on itself, is almost too theatrical for the task/story framework Allen has established, representing a shift in aesthetic. But with the same emotional frankness he's exhibited throughout the story, he manages to turn the moment into a straightforward memory, showing but not naming the mixed feelings ignited by sitting in his father's chair.

Another rough-edged performance is Abby Schachner's sarcastic, frenetic play on children's television, Toteroonie. In her skintight lime green vintage pants and dark shirt, Schachner plays herself as a childish adult desperate for self-fulfillment. Her mentor, addressed as "O Holy One," is a slab of Swiss cheese; Schachner makes him talk back to her in a kid-game deep voice. Remarkably, the joke is funny over and over, because instead of a comic shtick the cheese becomes a character in itself, leading Schachner to discover and please her refreshingly bizarre inner child. The issues of abuse and neglect commonly addressed in her performances are rehashed here; this surreal version is a model for making comedy out of tragedy via committed goofiness.

Toteroonie is a mash of puns, mini scenes, and props, including big signs to help with audience interaction and puppets made of real vegetables. Schachner gives herself gold stars on a chart for things she does right, invents strange characters, and sings nonsensical, almost tuneless kid-show-style songs about gold stars and divorce. In one particularly brilliant song about menstruation, an aged, obsessively positive health teacher literally steps "on the rag and off the rag and on the rag again" while she sings of the glory of menstruation in all its evident unglory. A harmless discussion with the audience about the "special" qualities of a globe leads into a strange song about "God's Testicle," the world. Inevitably Schachner's rage comes out in bizarre, hysterically funny ways. And because she's entirely committed to each moment, she makes this kids' show about a dysfunctional life work, even though the conventions of continuity and good taste would seem to rule that out. In her still raw wildness, Schachner reminds me a little of Gilda Radner: fearless, wonderfully strange, and a little dangerous.

Judith Greer and Gabrielle S. Kaplan, on the other hand, tell their tales a little too smoothly, without finding the theatrical language that would make their careful structures work. In Little Girls Get Bigger, Greer (bravely carrying on without her bass player) sings and dances to poems about the trials of being a sexually active single woman with a broken heart. A clean performance, it quickly begins to feel like a chain of poems loosely strung together, thematically connected but without any specifics of character or setting.

Kaplan's more moving story is a layered history of her Aunt Greta, who long ago died in a concentration camp. The center of Greta in 7 Parts, directed by Julie Cohen, is a sweet, bland poem meant to climax the performance, but Kaplan spends a lot of words and energy framing this poem instead of letting it stand on its own, cluttering the piece with explanations and coy transitions, ultimately obscuring her most interesting writing: a vision of her aunt's escape when she's transformed into a mermaid. The potential for pleasure in this style of work lies in the writer's use of melodious words, but both Kaplan and Greer remain too attached to a universal "poetic" persona to find the specific voice that will make their storytelling breathe.

Bryn Magnus and Antonio Sacre fall prey to that double-edged storyteller's sword--charm. Interestingly, Magnus's surreal, nonsensical Ring/Rang Dialouge: A Tragedy of Gentrification is very different from Sacre's more conventional drumming/storytelling. But both men use their physical prettiness to sell an underdeveloped idea.

Magnus, who didn't have his script fully memorized, charmed his way back into the audience's favor by twinkling his eyes and tilting his head coquettishly. But his rambling, encoded, obtrusively clever script couldn't be rendered clear by little tricks. Poised behind two cutouts, one representing a gentrifier and the other his intended conquest, Magnus rambles on in his lovely voice, soft-pedaling images that add up to little more than a verbose celebration of the bohemian impulse.

Sacre's mix of African folktales with his own story is also undermined by his charm. Sacre's manner, with his grinning, tender glances toward the audience, is almost apologetic. This persona might work with a different story or a different storytelling mode in which Sacre wasn't acting out characters and scenes so literally. But in these sometimes brutal tales of the power relationships between fathers and sons, his glances seem a plea for us to be nice. As a result, his well-chosen, clearly told stories are less powerful than they might have been.

"Revolving Troubadors" reveals the devastating effect a vague persona or a bad performance habit can have on even the most earnest and worthy of stories. At the same time, every piece reveals the power of an honest struggle between story, storyteller, and the stage, resulting in a spectrum of performances ranging from the lazy and charming to the risky and strange.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Antonio Sacre photo.

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