Kitty Hawk: First Solo Flight

at TurnAround Theatre, through February 26

By Justin Hayford

In case Foucault hasn’t convinced you, maybe a few hours watching Oprah, Maury, or Ricki will: we are a nation of confessors. Whether placing ourselves before a priest, psychoanalyst, or teleprompter, we somehow feel obliged to offer up to public scrutiny the minutest details of our most twisted impulses. We may be seeking absolution, health, or merely attention, but we can’t seem to keep our mouths shut.

Then again, storytelling has been in our blood since cavepeople’s grunts first evolved into language. We tell stories to solidify shared values, to clarify confusion, to recognize one another. Foucault may see institutionalized confession as a tactical deployment of regulatory power, allowing the Authorities to “normalize” and delimit behavior. But it can also bring us together and remind us of the limitless potential of human experience. Each of us has–and is–a story.

For the solo performer, however, autobiography is unequivocally dicey. Our willingness to listen to perfect strangers tell their stories, whether in a theater, at a cocktail party, or on a subway platform, is directly proportional to two factors: how interesting the story(teller) is, and how safe we feel listening. In our media culture, which is saturated with human-interest curiosities, finding a fresh angle on romantic entanglements or family relations–two favored topics of the monologuist–demands keen insight. And in our puritanical culture, the risk of scaring audience members right under their seats with grossly intimate details looms large. Rather than bringing us together, such stories can drive lasting wedges between us.

The nine fledgling monologuists in Kitty Hawk: First Solo Flight indulge their confessional impulses while bending over backward to make the audience feel safe. With a few notable exceptions, these performers take a decidedly lighthearted approach to school reunions, career crises, childhood trauma, failed love, and artistic paralysis. Even life under the thumb of a dominatrix, as told by the endlessly jovial Paul Zegler, is a feel-good romp. And for Zegler the disparity between his brutal subject matter and breezy style creates an engaging tension. But for many of the other performers, their need to appear likable results in pleasant but toothless work.

One performer, though, has a full set of fangs she’s not afraid to show. Donna Jay Fulks chews through her dazzling “Putting on the Ritz” like a starved carnivore. She doesn’t just take the stage: she assaults it, launching into a viciously funny story about her disastrous high school homecoming parade (the drama club’s float is ambushed by the football team). Fulks fantasizes about her murderous impulses, imagining herself leveling the quarterback with a single blow. Only later does she confess that in reality she “kind of shoved him” with the palm of her hand. Combining a wide vocal and physical range with an economical writing style, she produces an urgent, immediate performance.

Fulks also understands the value of crafting a piece into something beyond candid autobiography. In “Putting on the Ritz” she doesn’t just confess–she orchestrates the confessional impulse, by turns revealing and concealing the truth. This technique drives the piece to a stunning conclusion. Fast-forwarding to her ten-year high school reunion, she exposes the underlying cause of her ferocity: her brother’s recent death. However, Fulks never spells out the tragedy in detail (a lesson many of her colleagues should take to heart). Rather she hints and suggests, offering a peek at an unimaginable horror. Dreaming that she’s pummeling another reunion attendee, she says, “My hand with the vodka sliced through her head. Her head. His head. And the glass shattered in my hand and his head shattered through the windshield and her blood splattered in my hair and his blood splattered on the grass and her friends rushed to her side and my mother was rushed to the site.” The brief, terrifying flashes of her brother’s death create a nightmarish confusion true to the experience of grief.

The other monologuists have yet to develop much sense of craft (with the exception of Antonio Sacre, who creates deft family portraits with great efficiency). Showing little concern for style or for a performance personality, they reduce craft to little more than witty, often unneeded embellishments. They speak artlessly, directly, with mixed results. Strangely, the two performers who seem most ill at ease–David Scott and Paul Turner–create the most engaging pieces. They stumble and bumble but display a deep connection to the stories they tell. The others tend to stay on the surface, working through their texts rather than the experiences that give the texts meaning: it’s as if they’ve memorized someone else’s life. Their scripts are by and large endearing–the preternaturally self-doubting Sullivan Hester takes us on a tour of her psyche’s parlor, for example, showing us her collection of half-empty glasses and her own personal black cloud–but the performers seem more concerned with saying things exactly right than with sharing an emotional experience.

Still, there’s something captivating about the general lack of sophistication in Kitty Hawk. Perhaps I’m simply rooting for the underdog: these are tentative first steps from people who’ve never attempted solo work before. Yet director Paula Killen has also accomplished what few in her place would have attempted: she got nine nervous performers to talk directly and candidly to a live audience. This may not sound like much, but in a city full of directors who encourage their actors to ignore the audience, looking only at one another or at the back wall of the theater when they’re not scurrying around in the dark, it’s exceptional indeed. Killen reminds us why we come to the theater in the first place: to experience genuine human presence. You can’t get that from Oprah.