Abby Schachner

at Live Bait Theater, through August 2

At the top of her newest one-woman show Abby Schachner, playing a very neurotic “performance therapist,” observes that we’re living “in the golden age of one-person shows.” Then, speaking directly to the audience, she asks, “Why don’t you all, who have real lives, do one of your own?”

She has a point. Measured by volume alone, this is indeed a great era for solo performers, a time when it sometimes seems that everyone who’s ever had a life–or dreamed of having one–creates a one-person show and tosses it squirming onto the stage. We’re inundated with performers who think it’s enough to stand onstage and be themselves. Or some reasonable facsimile thereof. But sadly, few performers understand that you must also have something to say–and a reasonably interesting way of saying it.

This has never been Schachner’s problem. If anything, she’s suffered from a surfeit of ideas. Her past shows were packed to the point of bursting with opinions, observations, and moments of heartfelt self-revelation. She’s covered the recovery movement, our TV-besotted culture, the fascist fashion industry–just about all the challenges of growing up female in the wilds of suburban America. In Boxing Chicken she tackled such diverse topics as eating disorders, growing up, and overcoming inner demons–all related, to be sure. She also submitted us to a constant barrage of original ways of presenting herself and her material, at one point even pulling two uncooked chickens over her hands like boxing gloves. It was hard not to feel overwhelmed at times during Boxing Chicken.

Schachner’s appearances at the Voltaire fund-raisers in May and June also illustrated the sheer fecundity of her mind. Even when she’s performing her own tried-and-true material, such as the killing bit in which she paints a Hitler mustache on an anorexic supermodel and proceeds to skewer the fat-obsessed fashion industry, she can’t help but interrupt her routine to make new comments. And often these are as funny and pointed as her script–hardly surprising, considering that she has an extensive background in improv.

Even Schachner’s messiest shows revealed a formidable talent, needing only a little more seasoning or the right director to bring order out of chaos. Fortunately her newest piece, Lilly–part of the “Fillet of Solo Festival” at Live Bait–has both. In the two years since I saw her perform Boxing Chicken, she’s put in lots of stage time–at the ImprovOlympic and Second City, where she was a member of the national touring company, and on Sunday-morning kids’ TV. It shows. She now moves with the certainty and grace of someone who believes she has a right to be onstage. Gone are the nervous tics and the self-conscious jokes, particularly about her onstage messiness, that sometimes robbed her shows of energy.

This show also has a tighter, more graceful and balanced structure than Schachner’s previous efforts. Yes, she still has a table full of props and resorts to them from time to time, but here the table isn’t front and center–it’s off to one side. Schachner performs about a third of Lilly behind it, though this time one never gets the impression she’s using it as a shield.

This time around, too, Schachner has a full story to tell, with a beginning, middle, and end, and not just a series of interesting scenes from a life too large to fit comfortably onstage. In Lilly she focuses on two women–Lilly and her perfectionist mother–following their tightly intertwined lives, beginning with Lilly’s blissful days as a fetus in her mother’s womb. Then she travels through Lilly’s less than blissful childhood and adolescence, when her mother tried to force her into various socially acceptable roles, and ends with the uneasy truce between parent and child called maturity. Along the way Schachner finds time to exorcise her favorite demons: people who try to squash spontaneity, restrictive cultural ideals (signified by Lilly’s mother’s worship of Jackie Kennedy), and the myriad ways food–and fear of fat–rules women’s lives.

What’s especially innovative about this show are Schachner’s characters. Among solo writer-performers only the best–the Danny Hochs and the David Cales–manage to create characters who are not simply fictionalized versions of themselves. Here Schachner impersonates four people, two of whom play supporting roles: the therapist already mentioned and a crackpot psychic.

Even though Schachner clearly favors Lilly and puts her struggle for selfhood and independence in the most favorable light, she doesn’t neglect Lilly’s mother. Rather she takes pains to show us the full woman, the scars and the claws, the vulnerability and the homophobia–the result of her husband’s having come out as a gay man just prior to deserting the family. The most resonant scenes are those in which Lilly’s mother, poised at a mirror preening, stares at her reflection while she speaks to Lilly–at once Narcissus transfixed by her own image and Snow White’s resentful stepmother, wishing the worst for her beautiful daughter.

How many of these innovations are Schachner’s doing, and how many are the result of director Michael Ross’s guidance? Only Schachner and Ross know for sure, but Ross’s direction must have had something to do with this show’s greater strength and coherence (Schachner’s past shows have been basically self-directed). He must have at least encouraged Schachner to create various personae, freeing her to further explore the issues that have always fascinated her.

I don’t want to give Ross too much credit for Schachner’s transformation, however, since metamorphosis–overcoming obstacles–has been at the heart of every performance of hers I’ve seen. It seems it was only a matter of time before the full, confident, talented woman emerged from behind Schachner’s childish chaos and silly, girlish evasions. And that time is now.

4 From the Girlz Room

at Live Bait Theater, through August 1

4 From the Girlz Room, also part of the “Fillet of Solo Festival,” features four performers, none of whom has mastered the one-person show the way Schachner has, though judging by their bios they’ve all been doing theater for as long, or almost as long, as she has. The comparison is not entirely fair, however, since Schachner is a highly individual performer at the top of her game while the four women in 4 From the Girlz Room are more or less unknown in Chicago. They still seem to be searching for their voices or for the right forms; they’re still more or less stuck at the “it’s enough to be me, me, me” stage of development.

This is especially true of Anna Wagner, whose personal reminiscence “One Up,” about her first experiences with tampons, is little more than one of those funny, embarrassing stories we tell over dinner. And that’s pretty much how Wagner tells it, embellishing it slightly with appropriate movements, though “One Up” still lacks the vividness and economy of a well-told personal anecdote. Similarly, Milwaukee-based performer Kristi Lynn Johnson doesn’t yet have the chops to bring to life her sometimes intense experiences as a white teacher in a mostly black school. Instead she gives us mostly stage busywork (filling a flowerpot with black, black soil) and a host of important ideas to ponder (homophobia is bad, racism is not good, murder is awful).

The first two performers of the evening are actually stronger, more confident and committed. Jennifer Ostrega’s wittily fragmented “Perm- a-Lance” tells with humor and originality the tale of a talented recent college graduate trying to find a foothold in a world full of selfish, resentful, easily threatened authority figures. Stephanie Kulke’s piece, “Waiting for Dad,” also concerns a withholding authority figure, in this case her father. Bound tightly by traditional notions of manhood and fearful of women who threaten his one-man autocracy, he can’t really understand his daughter, much less enfold her in his arms and give her the kind of parenting she craves.

Nothing Ostrega nor Kulke do is startlingly original, but both perform well enough one can almost forget they’re not the first to discuss onstage absent fathers and endless job searches. If you can’t come up with something new and amazing the way Schachner does, the next best thing is to address old issues a new way.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Lilly and 4 From the Girlz Room uncredited theater stills.