at Raven Theatre

The program note on Whitney Empire, the author of Breaking Wood, reads: “Although sharing the same past, Whitney Empire no longer resides in Susan MacNeil’s body” (MacNeil is the actor in this one-woman show). MacNeil, according to the program, has a black belt in kyokushin karate, a Korean-based school of martial arts that emphasizes body contact and the breaking of objects. MacNeil also, it says, “devotes a good portion of her time to Esoteric Studies in Psychology and the Ancient Universal Mysteries.” Even without these notes, however, we know this will be no ordinary theatrical narrative–MacNeil’s crystal talisman and the obvious seam in the board she “breaks” in the course of the play are sufficient.

Breaking Wood (which moves March 5 to Chicago Actors Project) is the story of a woman who learns to deal with her problems by studying karate, with some assistance from parapsychology, past-life regression, and raps with her “higher self.” Though Breaking Wood superficially resembles such biographical monologues as Vince Balestri’s Kerouac: Essence of Jack and Cynthia Caponera’s Against the Grain, these focus on external events–documented historical incidents affecting others–and the play’s characters reveal themselves through their responses to these events. The protagonist in Breaking Wood, however, proclaims her character to us herself, and the only events she responds to are the internalized events of her own life.

This could still make for interesting theater if this woman’s life had been in any way extraordinary, but her experiences are painful only in their banality. She has a father with an illness that is never named, she discovers the body of her grandfather just after he’s died, she refuses to marry her first boyfriend, she has an affair with a married man, she drinks liquor and smokes dope. None of these experiences is explored in any depth–indeed, all these hardships seem only hurdles she’s destined to overcome. Eventually, she learns to dance: “Being physical is so pure and natural,” she says, pirouetting around the stage to show as well as tell us. Then she comes to realize that her chronic back injuries are psychosomatically induced, and discovers that “Wealth is inside of me.” But since we know so little of where she’s traveled, there is nothing to make us care about where she’s arrived.

Even speeches like “I think the mystery of sex is the lower form of becoming one with God–know what I mean, jelly bean?” could be saved by a skilled and sensitive interpreter, who might infuse the rampant didactic psychobabble with a semblance of genuine emotion. MacNeil, however, does not act so much as act out, miming every phrase literally, with mechanical precision. She spreads her arms wide on the word “free,” wiggles her fingers around her head on the word “confusion,” runs her hands through her long hair on the word “passion,” and so on. The result resembles nothing so much as the frame-by-frame progression of those Jules Feiffer cartoons with the woman in leotard and tights dancing her monologue.

“I have found my greatest love–myself,” Empire/MacNeil announces at one point. There were many reasons to want to sympathize with her–not the least of them being an audience of only five people. But after an hour of this encounter-group narcissism, one cannot rid oneself of the nagging suspicion that an entirely empty theater might be all the audience this artist requires.