Mark Roth

at Emit Gallery

December 16

Every reviewer’s nightmare: the wind chill is 30 below, I’m way the hell west on Grand Avenue, in a neighborhood I never even knew existed, in a gallery I’ve never heard of, with a few folding chairs, a single aluminum scoop lamp clamped to one of the bare ceiling rafters, and no heat save for a grumbling space heater that looks as though it’s been salvaged from the wreck of a DC-10. I’m a long way from the Royal-George.

Luckily, the people who run Emit Gallery know how to treat their audience. Not only is their beautifully severe space staffed by genuinely warm people, but hot cider awaited us as we bought our tickets. And most fortunate of all, Mark Roth is one of those rare performers who can enchant me for a full evening, allowing me to forget minor distractions like frostbite.

Roth’s new performance piece, Commuter Trip, made for a thoroughly delightful evening despite the odds.

Commuter Trip, like all of Roth’s work that I have seen, is structured simply out of anecdotes and observations. But Roth’s insight is so keen, and his story-telling skill so sharp, that he is able to weave a rich tapestry from seemingly unrelated threads. Most impressive is that the interconnectedness of his ideas becomes plain only after the fact. Five or six stories may pass before you realize that story number four reexamined an issue raised in story one. Roth keeps his audience on their toes: revelations flash at the most unexpected moments.

Commuter Trip is built not around a single theme or idea but around one particularly evocative image: being in transit. The stories Roth relates always seem to happen during a momentary pause in an “important” action. Coming out of a museum on his way to somewhere, Roth hears on a security guard’s walkie-talkie, “Watch that guy. He’s up to no good.” He describes how self-conscious this makes him; as he walks away from the museum, his muscles tense, his feet turn to clay, and he begins to stagger, until he is convinced that he is indeed up to no good. Here, immediately, the story ends, as if it had been glimpsed through the window of a passing car. All of Roth’s anecdotes share this quality of the momentarily caught glimpse.

Roth frames his piece around a train trip from New York to Lima, Ohio. This is ostensibly the “master narrative,” the commuter trip in question, to which he continually returns during the course of the performance. The piece begins with this trip: “I hadn’t even sat down yet when a man asked me about the state of my immortal soul.” This train ride offers Roth a myriad of chance encounters: people sitting next to him, people in the station, people working for the railroad. Though the literal train stays on an unwavering course, the metaphorical train allows Roth to wander.

In the same way, Roth takes his audience on a grand journey of the imagination, replete with unexpected encounters. Roth walks out of his apartment building one night, stepping over what appears, in hindsight, to have been the rear half of a dog, to find himself accosted in an arcade by teenage girls nervously asking for his autograph. He answers a ringing public phone to hear a voice say, “I can see you. Don’t move.”

While the commuter train charges forward, our metaphorical journey is tantalizingly circuitous. Roth’s tales wind and twist and turn back on themselves, leaving the audience suspended in a multiplicity of places and times. We hear stories from his childhood: when all the men in a friend’s family went to work on a farm one summer, they all shaved their heads, and got such severe sunburns that now they’re all bald. We hear stories that might be contemporary: Roth works as a pollster for Harris Polls questioning CEOs about national politics, a job he likens to phone sex. And we hear stories that are unlikely to be true: Roth sees a man wearing a sign that reads, “Please help me. Dave is my only friend.”

By juxtaposing these two kinds of travel–the linearity of the train and the meandering of his imagination–Roth shows the delight that springs not from arrival but from travel itself. Part of this delight is Roth’s habit of constantly gathering things on his way; early in the piece, he describes looking for four-leaf clovers. (But with characteristic irony, Roth debunks the magic of his chosen image. “Of course four-leaf clovers are rare,” he comments. “People are always picking them. Their gene pool is constantly depleted.”)

By both literally and figuratively extolling his delight in travel, Roth allows his audience to put aside expectations of closure. We are told from the start that Commuter Trip will not add up. We will not arrive anywhere but will be changed by the stops along the way. In this sense, Commuter Trip is Roth’s most successful work. His earlier performances have tended to lose momentum during their final stages, but here Roth has solved that problem by showing his audience how to read his performance at the beginning.

Paradoxically, Commuter Trip does add up, though in a more intuitive than intellectual way. Roth’s characters are generally on the margins of society–or at least devoid of much status. Something about this trip speaks of restoring dignity to those who might otherwise be seen as disposable. This idea is powerfully conveyed in two short anecdotes in the middle of the piece. Roth first describes his grandmother, who “only speaks in euphemisms.” Thus instead of “going to the bathroom” she “voids herself.” Immediately afterward, Roth tells about seeing a man on the train with cuts on his face covered with “flesh-colored” Band-Aids. “But,” Roth points out, “unfortunately they don’t make Band-Aids in the color of his skin.” Something as ordinary as a Band-Aid dismisses the existence of people of color; such people are effectively voided. Whether or not Roth intended the connection, it was a powerful one for me, one that made sense in the overall context.

I first saw Roth perform about three years ago at Link’s Hall, and my impression then was that he was funny but so nervous I could hardly hear him. How exciting to see the level of maturity that his work has now attained.