by Lllian Meredith · October 21, 2013
The 4th annual UNITED SOLO THEATRE FESTIVAL is at Theater Row on 42nd Street October 3 – November 24 with 121 productions. Indie Theater Artist Lillian Meredith looks at Dark Stories, Lorraine Olsen is Figuratively Speaking, and Hurricane Alana There are many different kinds of solo performance work. More often than not, however, the playwright/performer takes the audience on an autobiographical journey. In this realm of the self-reflective, one hopes that the story will have a resonance beyond the particular solipsism of the creator – that the story will enlighten some area of our lives as well, or reveal the world in ways we might not otherwise have seen, or perhaps just tell a fascinating story we have never heard before.
In Dark Stars, Jonathan Council recounts the rather captivating and mostly unknown story of Irving Sayles, an African American entertainer who exploded onto the Australian vaudeville circuit at the end of the 19th century. Sayles found fame and fortune in performing minstrel shows for white Australian audiences; his success was so immense that he could draw thousands of people to his comedy shows. He was one of the most celebrated performers of his day, but his entire livelihood was built on the racism of his adoring fans. Almost one hundred years ago, at the height of his career, he suddenly dropped dead from a heart attack, and subsequently became completely lost to history. Council, meanwhile, follows a similar trajectory, but without the resulting success. He, too, is a performer willing to do whatever it takes to become famous. He, too, leaves America for better opportunities on “the underside of the world” (he says, with a kind of enchanting wide-eyed wonder). Unfortunately, his story of elusive fame lost and lost again is not nearly as interesting as Sayles’ tale of self-denigration and passion. Sayles, in life and apparently in death, has something that the otherwise charming Council simply does not – he was a star, and for whatever reason, you want to know more about him. And while Council is extremely likeable, and the story he and his director/writer Arthur Meeks have crafted is told honestly and without unnecessary affectation, the magic that happens when he transforms into Sayles is unmatched by the rest of the piece.
Similarly, Lorraine Olsen is FIGURATIVELY SPEAKING tells an autobiographical story through a unique lens that is often more appealing than the actual narrative. Olsen is an artist’s model – she poses clothed and nude for drawing classes and professional artists – and her play is set up as a kind of Modeling 101. As she tells the story of her life, she shifts her relationship to us as the audience, making us participants in the experience; one moment we are eager young models in her class, the next we are members of her AA group. Throughout, however, we maintain a secondary identity as the artists who employ her – we are handed notebooks as we take our seats and are encouraged to draw her poses through the hour-long performance. These notebooks have the renderings that audience members have made before, and will hold our sketches to be perused at future productions, and there is something really wonderful and communal about that aspect of the piece. And while I’m not sure why this narrative needs to be told – what we as an audience gain from the story itself – I was glad to have the experience of being included in a world to which I do not belong, to experience a relationship that I would not otherwise have.
Not so, unfortunately, for the final piece I sat through at UnitedSolo. Hurricane Alana is a glib recounting of playwright/performer Alana Jackler’s experience of living in a terrible basement apartment during Hurricane Irene. The piece is angry, and justifiably so. The things that happen to Jackler during and after the storm are actually truly terrible – her apartment is flooded, she’s assaulted by the drug dealer she turns to for help, her place becomes a money pit, she can’t sell it, she loses her cat. The problem is that she isn’t just angry – she’s sarcastic, caustic, and lacking in any wider scope of appreciation of the ways in which Irene, and current economic and environmental affairs, affect people other than herself. When she attempts humor, it comes off as cruel and aggressive, like a comedian attempting to draw laughs by insulting others. That said, there is one moment in the play that is utterly wonderful. In one of her more desperate moments, she decides to visit Amma, The Hugging Guru, and the details of her experience are so beautiful and helpless and hopeful that it is almost heartbreaking. In that moment, there is a whole subplot about loneliness and its amplification during hardship, and suddenly all her angry descriptions of her loser ex-boyfriends and the weird strangers she turns to for help coalesce into something potentially meaningful and important. But this moment in the play stands out precisely because it is so singular. So much of her meditation on loneliness feels thoughtless, myopic, and desperate, and the larger connection these tangents have to the events of the storm is tenuous at best. It’s too bad. Jackler is a powerful stage presence, with a lovely voice and excellent control, and there really could be something in this piece worth watching. It’s just hard to feel any pity for someone who is so consumed with her own experience that she can’t see past her own immediate misfortune.