John Leguizamo’s new solo show is a work in progress–which, Leguizamo told his fans at the show I saw last weekend, means “you’re very privileged to see me suck.” Certainly this ever-changing “semi-demi-quasi-pseudo-autobiography” has its spotty patches–but it has wonderful ones too, and even when he falters Leguizamo is a high-voltage performer with a remarkable gift for mimicry. A much less organized theater piece than his brilliant 1992 Spic-O-Rama: A Dysfunctional Comedy, in which Leguizamo played six members of a Colombian-Puerto Rican family in Queens, Freak at this point is essentially a long stand-up routine–about two hours with no intermission. Leguizamo comes off as an agile and outrageous smart-ass, manically eager to crack up his listeners with often heartlessly hilarious imitations of family members and startling stories of his sexual exploits and his fledgling efforts as an actor. These tales are rude and often raunchy, shamelessly packed with racial, sexual, and other insensitivities. In one, Leguizamo tells of pretending to be a “re-tard” to confuse neighborhood bullies; in another he reminisces about his first sexual encounter, with a German woman whose genitals reminded him of “a failed experiment from the island of Dr. Moreau.” Discussing his adolescent obsession with masturbation, he pantomimes playing with his congealed jism like it was taffy; recalling his tryout for New York’s fabled Actors Studio, he enacts a fantasy in which he gives legendary teacher Lee Strasberg a fatal heart attack with the audacity of his audition. Underlying these and other anecdotal assaults is Freak’s concern with the dysfunctional dynamics of Leguizamo’s upbringing–the struggle to survive in a tough neighborhood (the kids didn’t play cops and robbers, they played police brutality) and a household torn by the raw verbal battles between his drunken, abusive father and his flighty, disco-queen-wannabe mother. Survival is indeed the nascent theme of this evolving work: how Leguizamo learned to disarm potential foes at home and on the streets with a mixture of eager-to-please energy (he opens the show with a rowdy rap routine, urging the audience to clap along with the heavy dance beat) and anything-goes humor. As Freak continues to develop, one hopes Leguizamo will explore more deeply the emotional cost of his survival strategies as well as exploiting them for cunningly comic shock effect. Goodman Studio Theatre, 200 S. Columbus, 312-443-3800. Through March 30: Tuesdays-Thursdays, 7:30 PM; Fridays-Saturdays, 8 PM; Sundays, 2 PM. $21-$24; day-of-show rush discounts and dinner-show packages available.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): John Leguizamo photo/ uncredited.