by Amy Lee Pearsall · October 4, 2014
If you enjoy solo-performance, be certain to check out the fifth annual United Solo Theatre Festival. Running at Theatre Row on 42nd Street through November 23rd. This year’s United Solo features over 130 short theatrical productions, representing 22 countries from six continents. Many of these exciting productions will only run once. Take a chance, pick a day, and take in some of the rich and varied offerings this consistently delightful festival has to offer.
What, precisely, does it mean to be human? International performance artist Christopher Vened takes a crack at answering this age-old question in his monologue Human Identity, which recently appeared as part of the 2014 United Solo Theatre Festival. Vened, a venerated mime originating from Poland, published a book several years back called In Character: An Actor's Workbook for Character Development, and his chapter on the subject of identity planted the seed for what would eventually grow into this one-man performance piece.
Christopher Vened says that he is not a mime anymore - he says he got old. Don't let him fool you: his work in Human Identity most comes alive when he illustrates his routine with fluid, intricate movement. The piece itself is a philosophical, intellectual and emotional rumination upon what makes humans so very human as opposed to, say, apes or birds. The challenge with this is that there really isn't a plot, and the experience is not unlike attending a very creative 90-minute lecture. As the structure of the piece currently stands, it was regrettably about half an hour longer than my attention span.
Vened frequently appears to be searching in his head for the next subject or block of text that he plans to tackle, and English is admittedly not his first language. His gaze is often directed slightly above the audience, missing a solid opportunity to connect and build rapport with the house. In perusing the program, it does not appear that an actual director was consulted on this project. While it is obvious Vened is an established performer, it might benefit a substantial work such as this to have another eye upon it, as well as some additional creative input.
With his eye on the horizon, Vened plans to take Human Identity on a world tour. I have no doubt this will happen, as he sees himself as a citizen of the world and "theater is a country without borders." That said, I would encourage him to perhaps kick the tires a few times on the piece, and maybe find someone to help navigate before putting gas in the tank. Some gentle tweaking might better prepare Human Identity to cross the wild frontier.
LeLand Gantt's one-man show Rhapsody in Black also deals in identity, but takes an entirely different approach. Gantt's memoir piece deals with self-destruction, self-sabotage, and racism. It has the potential to come across as heavy stuff, and with Ferguson still raw in our minds, the last thing an audience might expect is a joyful, openhearted examination of personal history and redemption. Still, Gantt takes the stage with a huge, disarming smile and warm countenance, and playfully engages the audience. "I'm just trying to start a conversation," he says, and what a delightful, important conversation it is.
Gantt starts his tale in childhood, growing up in a rough neighborhood in Pittsburgh. In the company of questionable friends, he quickly finds himself taking drugs and living the life of a 13 year old thug with sticky fingers. There are periods of hope: he is saved at one turn by the intervention of his mother, and at another turn by time spent at the Boys Club of America. But eventually he finds himself out on his own in New York, self-medicating his personal demons with alcohol and women while trying to make it as an actor.
As guided by directorial consultant Estelle Parsons, Gantt clearly takes pure pleasure in sharing his work with us. At times, he brings us snippets of characters who have appeared in his life, but for the most part it is simply Gantt, recalling points along his journey and what he's learned along the way with a naked honesty. "What kind of work do you want to make?" he asks. It's posed to the audience, but it's obviously a question he first had to ask and answer himself.
Rhapsody in Black has been scheduled for a second performance at United Solo on November 6th at 9pm. Gantt's work here is timely and important, on top of just being fun to watch. Check it out if you get a chance.