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at Goodman Studio Theatre

“‘You were a bird in a former life,’ a fortune-teller told me. ‘What about this time around?’ I cried.” So speaks the unnamed protagonist of “A Trace of Panic,” one of the vignettes in monologuist David Cale’s new show Somebody Else’s House. Trying to figure out whose life we’re living, as we move through a world that seems somebody else’s house, is the idea that links the dozen character sketches in this 70-minute collection. It’s a theme that’s dear to the actor’s heart–and Cale is an actor first and foremost, as he slips in and out of his various personae with a minimum of technical artifice and an abundance of mimetic skill and emotion.

In these texts–whose rhythms and tone color are unashamedly shaped by their author’s British background and by the influence of such writers as Dylan Thomas and William S. Burroughs–Cale dramatizes the pain of people who lack a sense of their own identity. The hero of “A Trace of Panic”–a brilliant absurdist piece, the theatrical equivalent of underground comics (and with his current short haircut Cale resembles cartoonist Robert Crumb’s early self-portraits)–thinks of himself as a canvas onto which he fastens pieces of other people’s personalities, turning himself into a walking collage. His parents, Paranoia and Panic, never gave him an identity of his own, he explains, and he had to adopt a sexuality from the local sexuality pound. (He named it Scruffy.)

While stirring our sympathy–and identification–with this self-made man, Cale also celebrates the need to slip into and out of different roles: even the darkest artist finds pleasure in making his art, after all, and Cale shares that combined darkness and joy with particular aplomb. But unlike many monologuists whose caricatures are shaped by externals, Cale–performing under the direction of David Petrarca in this Goodman Theatre-commissioned world premiere–works from the inside out to build his remarkably believable array of anxious individuals. Don’t look for props or costumes to establish the residents of Somebody Else’s House. Instead, look into Cale’s eyes: they change with every new scene, with every new story told by these compulsive confessors. And watch his body, motored not by imitation of others but by inner life.

Thin, gangly, and balding, Cale looks nothing like Jay, the narcissistic hunk in “Warm Mirror.” As he regards his reflection and describes himself–“a shaggy mop of blond curls . . . the kind of ass that makes people want to turn into chairs”–Cale’s sheer concentration makes us see Jay literally through Cale’s eyes, bringing Jay to vivid life.

Nor does Cale bear any resemblance to Dorothy, aging sexpot and once and future pop-scene groupie, who claims (perhaps truthfully–who knows?) to have been the inspiration for Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne”–that is, when she wasn’t helping James Taylor fight off his demons. (These days she’s got a thing going with Chris Isaak, but Leonard’s still the one.) Perched atop a stool, Cale adjusts his basic black socks and faded denim pants as if they were Dorothy’s torn but still luxurious nylons–and Dorothy springs visibly to life in all her languid sensuality, drolly drawling about an especially memorable bout of “soixante neuf” with Leonard.

Cale’s range also goes beyond the strange ones–like Dandy, the husky-voiced female-to-male transsexual; chirpy Qui Qui, the playful, polymorphous perverse inner child of a suicidally depressed man; and Jeremy, the profoundly alienated adolescent who turns the epithet “sissy” on its head by taking on the sociopathic persona of Sissy Spacek in Badlands. In the show’s most moving scene, Cale adopts nearly total stillness as Lillian, a 30-ish housewife who dreams of an affair with “a Jimmy” and acts out her fantasy in a sweet but tawdry encounter with a teenage boy. A model of minimalist acting, Cale’s Lillian moves little but feels deeply beneath a crust of dead-end repression–and it shows in her eyes and in every minute shift of head, spine, and fingers as she replays the dreams she had, and the seedy reality of the encounter, in her head.

Restraint also marks “Somebody Else’s House,” a short speech by a gay man more oppressed by his own insecurity than by social opprobrium. Cale makes the man’s reined-in excitement and awe as he talks about his boyfriend, who casually expresses his feelings in a way the speaker cannot, palpable in subtle details: the man’s tentative smile of bemusement at his own pretense of bisexuality (“‘cos it took away the burden of responsibility a little”), a partial relaxation down the spine at the thought of touching his lover’s hand, an instinctive flinch at the thought of a disapproving person watching from afar.

Sparer and more somber than Cale’s last show at the Goodman, Deep in a Dream of You, Somebody Else’s House eschews the live jazz-rock that exhilaratingly punctuated the earlier piece in favor of recorded sound bites programmed by Michael Bodeen. In contrast to Dream’s abstract, painterly visual scheme, designer Michael S. Philippi has set this work in a houselike structure that’s disturbingly tilted back. Especially given the intimacy of the Goodman’s studio theater, this bare room draws us even further into the extraordinarily vivid world conjured up by the skill and sensitivity of a fascinating writer and consummate actor.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eric Y. Exit.