Lexis Praxis VI: Chicago Writers Taken to Stage

Zebra Crossing Theatre

Los Angeles may have elbowed us into third place, but in our heart of hearts we’re still the Second City. And nowhere is this more apparent than in our New York-obsessed theater scene, jointly dominated by New York worshipers who dream of moving shows to Broadway and those who believe that what Chicago audiences really want are local productions of whatever plays were anointed last season by the handful of critics, producers, and directors who really matter on that crowded little isle of Manhattan.

In contrast most of our local writers are all but invisible to top-flight Chicago theater companies. When was the last time Steppenwolf produced an original work by a Chicago playwright who isn’t Frank Galati? Of course, a lot of our local playwrights aren’t very good. But the same holds for the sacred cows that keep lumbering over to our trough from NYC. And how long do you think it will be before a local writer gets a chance to lay a big money-losing stinker on the stage the way John Guare did earlier this year for Remains?

For the last six years the tiny Zebra Crossing Theatre has been matching up local writers with local directors to create works that are wholly Chicago creations. This year’s edition of “Lexis Praxis” lacks a unifying theme–the subtitle “Chicago Writers Taken to Stage” is really more of a mission statement for the whole series–but it does contain a few gems, most notably Lisa Buscani’s wonderful but still ragged Drag and Marc Smith’s touching one-man play Flea Market.

Of the two, Smith’s piece–written and performed by Smith and directed by Tina Lilly–is the most surprising, in part because Smith’s writing here is so much stronger and more insightful than anything else of his I’ve heard or read, and in part because his delivery is so much simpler and more assured than the forced faux-Kerouac persona I’ve seen him adopt at the Poetry Slam. Set at a booth in a flea market, the play features Smith as one of those eccentric angry-at-the-world guys whose life is a running complaint about how things are going and how people are treating him. Muttering to himself as he unfolds his table, as he sets out his wares, as he takes his seat for a long day of crabbing at the long line of people who come by just to “have a look,” Smith’s character is so irascible he’s hilarious. But then halfway through the monologue the guy turns from complaining about the world to bitching about his family, and slowly, with grace and precision, Smith lets us see the human being beneath the attitude and the anger. He never comes out and says “I’m divorced; I’m lonely; I miss my kid,” yet by the end of this moving monologue we know just how cut up and alone he really is.

Buscani’s Drag is a considerably less focused work that feels like a work in progress. Sections of this series of autobiographical stories created around the theme of drag and drag queens are reminiscent of Buscani’s most recent evening-long one-woman show Carnivale Animale. In particular, an AIDS-scare story is remarkably similar in structure to the tale Buscani told in Carnivale Animale about the day her sister “disappeared” in Chicago. Still, Buscani unfocused is a better storyteller than many performers working with their most polished material. As in her past work, both solo and with the Neo-Futurists, she bonds with the audience immediately and never lets us down.

Almost as compelling as Drag and Flea Market is He Who Is Kissed, Jack Rinella’s fascinating memoir about his first forays into the bathhouses and S and M. The selection feels too short, but crisp acting by Steven Davis holds our attention throughout–especially during a long sequence he spends suspended by ropes, bound, gagged, and wearing a leather mask.

The remaining two pieces in this show are considerably less successful. A reading of a Carl Sandburg poem on the topic of love, “Honey and Salt,” shows just how sentimental and sickening Sandburg can be. And an adaptation of “Fireflies,” a short story by David Michael Kaplan about two sisters, one who never left the family farm and one who did, doesn’t quite make the transition from page to stage. Admittedly the dramatic moments in Kaplan’s story may be too quiet to work well in theater–an older sister broods, an old man gets misty-eyed, two little girls ponder dead fireflies in a jar–but director Nick Bowling should have found some way to make these small events seem as important as they do in Kaplan’s story.

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