Carmela Rago

at Club Lower Links

November 16, 23, and 30

Carmela Rago’s new show would be great on the radio. Not that Rago–a waif of a woman–doesn’t have considerable stage presence, an admirable way with space, and even a nice ironic nod and wink.

One of the original gang of Chicago performance artists operating under the Fluid Measure umbrella, Rago is back onstage with an original piece, Real Life–Stories From the Real World, after a long absence. The last time she performed was at the now-defunct Limelight in 1988. That was her only appearance that year. So Rago hasn’t really been on the circuit since the mid-80s.

The show at Club Lower Links, playing one more time at midnight on November 30, is a less dramatic but more complex monologue than any Rago has done previously. She uses virtually no sets, no props, no costume, except for a 60s-ish pair of dangle earrings and a cool white dress; she doesn’t make any particularly dramatic movements, either physical or emotional. She is accompanied on part of the set by the Bullpups, a local band, who supply eerie, haunting sounds.

Rago’s tightly woven, tense monologue is actually undercut by her presence. The monologue itself is a desperate, nervous cry for assistance carefully wrapped in propriety. But with her delicate beauty and graceful pose, Rago belies the darkness of her own words. The character seeks neither pity nor sympathy, but still the performer’s ease with the materials–the confidence the character shouldn’t have–is unsettling, creating an ambivalence about how we’re to feel.

In Real Life the visual and the written work against each other–the writing already has the irony built in, the monologue doesn’t need to be couched ironically. In fact it would have been better to play the irony straightforwardly. Rago doesn’t need the knowing winks or smiles. I found myself closing my eyes, listening and not looking, in order to feel all the doubt and horror of the piece.

Rago’s character–perhaps partly autobiographical, partly invented–is a woman whose needs are in conflict with her desires. Her needs are a job, survival, security–all frighteningly basic, ordinary. Her desires are beauty, ease, the strange idyllic comfort of art. On the surface, this seems capricious, even flaky–a privilege and nothing more. But in Rago’s telling what seems a job interview becomes a self-indictment, then a confession, finally a plea. By the end desire and need are wholly entangled, the line so blurred it’s hard to tell if it’s there at all.

The interview begins innocently enough. She tells us: “He said hello, how are you? How do you do? Hello. Hi, there. Howdy. I want a woman who can talk a good game, interface with management, carry a knife and use it fast when someone’s just taken lighter fluid, poured it on her dress, and is about to strike a match.” He asks her if she’s ever been raped, had an abortion, or expects a promotion. She explains to him that she’s researched the company, that she knows she’d fit in and do well. But all this is meaningless–the bottom line is, she really needs the job.

This is a woman alone. She’s lived a life of seeming comfort, being invited to openings based on her looks, admired by the neighborhood kids because of her deep tan, imitated because she bought knotty pine before it was fashionable. This is a woman who once turned men’s heads without even noticing she was doing it and who now, 20 years later, isn’t sure who she is or where she belongs.

“Why did you leave your last position?” she remembers the interviewer asking. Her last position was married woman, stepmother, corporate assistant, arts maven, antique collector, society girl. “I left this job because I’m working on a novel, and I needed to do research on those who needn’t work,” she says. “I was asked to leave because my services were no longer needed. My services were no longer needed because I had become redundant.”

The vague vulgar sexuality of the query about her last position drifts in the air like a threat. Ultimately this many-layered question is unanswerable, yet it keeps coming up again and again. The harder she tries to get through the interrogation with her dignity intact, the more difficult it becomes not to tell more: the stories of her past are her context, yet the more she tells in order to answer, the more questions she raises, and the more maddening and personal it all becomes.

This is a woman with no alimony because her pride would forbid it, her ideals wouldn’t allow it. She didn’t marry for money anyway. “I didn’t handle the departure properly,” she says, balancing her fragile smile. “I didn’t ask for money. I didn’t ask for a means to maintain the relationship to which I had become accustomed.” That relationship, however, isn’t merely to her husband. It’s to the world–to her own sense of self, her connections and projections. The “relationship” has less to do with love, even with wealth, than with the loss of a certain basic privilege and convenience.

The interviewer–heard only through Rago’s paraphrasing and quoting–may be a potential employer, but he could just as easily be a former husband, a lover, or a shoe salesman. The questions asked are demeaning and dangerous but horribly familiar to women. These are the questions that, if not asked outright, are always implied.

The character Rago has invented in Real Life isn’t necessarily sympathetic. As she waxes nostalgic about the 60s, about her serendipity with things beautiful, about the way she didn’t even notice her luck, it’s difficult not to dismiss her as spoiled, even deserving of her misery. But Rago’s aural portrayal–the slight tremble in her voice, the nervous intake of breath between words–makes her seem brittle, gives her a hopelessness that even the most proper and hopeful visible mannerisms can’t eradicate.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.