Tellin’ Tales Theatre

at Victory Gardens Theater, through June 29

It seems the ancient and honorable art of storytelling has lost ground recently to what’s called “solo performance.” Telling stories is now most closely identified with women in odd headgear who relate fairy tales to schoolchildren, using energetic faces and exaggerated deliveries. Despite hip outlets like Ira Glass’s This American Life, storytelling simply doesn’t have the cachet of performance. I suspect that part of the reason is that the best storytelling looks so easy that the skill involved gets overlooked. At the same time, many solo performers cover up weak storytelling with movement, multimedia presentation, puppetry, high-gloss concepts, and other bits of legerdemain.

Tellin’ Tales Theatre, a troupe founded by Tekki Lomnicki, uses the art of storytelling to mentor and heal, working with schoolchildren and with disabled performers, both adults and children. But occasionally the group produces shows, among them this showcase for five storytellers. The result offers intermittent pleasures and illustrates the tension between storytelling and performance and between the archetypal and the specific.

The evening’s theme, as the title suggests, is travel, both literal and metaphoric, and the difficulties and revelations it offers. Since storytellers are often inspired by other stories, the role of earlier legends also comes into play: many time-honored devices are present here–dreams, magic objects, growth through loss.

The importance of earlier stories is best realized in Beth Ann Bryant-Richards’s winsome What I Did for Love. The title comes from A Chorus Line–a show she committed to memory as a prepubescent, drawn to its ideal of sacrificing all for the hard-knock life of an artist. But the real inspiration of her teen years came from, as she puts it, books where the heroines “don’t have hair–they have tresses.” Her search for a real-life lover from the heaving-bosom school led her to the arms of men like the bisexual Lance, whom she found incapable of giving her life-changing orgasms. What’s most interesting about Bryant-Richards’s piece (directed with a light but skillful hand by Jay Paul Skelton) is the way she illustrates the positive aspects of the romance novel–it may have given her unrealistic expectations of love, but she rightly points out that it also slyly provided models of women who succumb to the hero only after standing up to him and surviving various rites of passage.

A higher-brow inspiration yields less satisfying results in Matthew Kopp’s A Dragon Eating Tale, rather aimlessly directed by Lila M. Stromer. Wagner’s Ring cycle is reworked in Kopp’s coming-of-age story, which takes him from Chicago to Venice Beach, California, where his Brunnhilde-like girlfriend demands that he give up painting in order to create “corporate identities” for business concerns. The piece has potential, but unlike Bryant-Richards, Kopp hasn’t found a way to weave together archetypal tropes with his own rueful stories of thwarted ambition and romance. An overstuffed narrative and Kopp’s tendency to bludgeon us with whimsy and wordplay (encapsulated in the T-shirts he wears, with legends like “Lucky vs. Loki”) are distancing.

Charlie Rossiter doesn’t rely on anyone’s story but his own in The Night We Danced With the Raelettes, inspired by the discovery of his college journal in an old suitcase. The device is admittedly hoary, but Rossiter manages to find some lovely universal nuggets about how traveling backward into personal mythologies can unlock present-day mysteries. The title comes from a drunken evening he and a friend spent as the only white boys at a Ray Charles concert in Baltimore. Rossiter has some good material here, and the piece might grow if director Nick Jones can coax him to open up physically and vocally–Rossiter, a performance poet, seems uncomfortable with prose and spends much of the piece clutching his script the way Linus does his blanket. Also distracting is the overloud music design.

The most “performed” piece is Judith Harding’s Open Sesame, recounting her mid-80s stint as “the mailman” with the touring show Sesame Street Live!, which included a bizarre Thanksgiving performance at the Reagan White House. Harding’s lean dancer’s build and mobile face get a huge workout, but she hasn’t fulfilled the storyteller’s first function: deciding what her story is. Is it the gap between the upbeat kiddie-show culture and the hardships of a character actor? If so, David Sedaris covered the same territory much more successfully and succinctly in The Santaland Diaries. Harding has all the performance moves down, but she doesn’t know how to go from solipsistic musings to something more universal.

Lomnicki’s beautifully rendered The Quartermaster’s Daughter closes the evening. One of the most touching pieces I’ve seen in a long time, it shows how we rely on stories to keep vanished loved ones alive–in Lomnicki’s case, her crusty father, a veteran of World War II. After his death she obsessively collected and cataloged his possessions, and here she offers a quiet, heartfelt recitation of each item: an oft repaired power drill, a tie with horses on it, a fedora. She imbues each of these quotidian objects with the life force of the man who owned them–a quartermaster who “doled out his stories like rations,” adding generous dollops of profanity. When the props and costumes of her father’s life are lost through a bureaucratic blunder, Lomnicki has to journey back into her memories to resurrect him.

Under the direction of Laura DeMoon, the piece neatly sidesteps maudlin reverie, never becoming self-indulgent. And Lomnicki’s use of water imagery–grief as a wave, a dream about her father on a storm-tossed boat urging her to shed ballast–is moving but not belabored. By the end she’s created a loving portrait of her father–and reminded the audience that though styles of performance come and go, the simple act of telling stories is how we keep one another, and ourselves, alive.

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