Splinter Group Studio, through February 25

Magic Tales

Sean Masterson

at Sheffield’s Beer and Wine Garden, through March 28

America’s current boom in solo performance may indicate the theater’s declining fortunes (talented actors and writers are forced to do one-person shows to keep working) or our culture’s increasing isolation and narcissism (solo performance satisfies two of the narcissist’s fondest fantasies: that he is the center of the universe, and that everything he says and does is infinitely interesting).

But after seeing two-thirds of Splinter Group’s three-week festival “Solopalooza,” I’m feeling more generous about this form, which I often think of as done to death (especially after particularly self-indulgent shows). Yet in the right hands solo performances can be excellent laboratories for trying out new material, taking the sorts of risks no one would dare in bigger-budget shows. And the folks at Splinter Group have done an excellent job of collecting daring, intelligent artists and writers, both Chicago-based and not, for this series. So far (the series continues with new performers on the final weekend) the monologues have fallen into three categories: the personal confession, the political satire, and the intentionally opaque “work of art.”

People who hate performance art are probably thinking of the third category, with its beautiful but empty imagery, unfathomable symbolism, and fractured story telling (frequently coupled with a pathological dread of entertaining, or even engaging, the audience). True, a few brilliant performers–among them Goat Island, Michael Kalmes Meyers, the Baubo folks in their more inspired moments–can take these elements and fashion moving, beautiful, transcendent work.

More often such pieces resemble what Jennifer Marx delivers in My Name Is/Lily, performed the first week of “Solopalooza.” Like the slash in the title, her performance is full of gratuitous details–a glass of red wine, a bouquet of lilies, an entrance in a half-open bathrobe–that supposedly add meaning but don’t convey much to the audience. What are we supposed to make of the moment when Marx dips a lily into red wine and then licks the wine off the petal? Marx notes in her program that “the lily is one of the sacred symbols of the Catholic Church, associated with Mary,” but fails to mention the lily’s better known connection with Easter and the Resurrection of Christ. As anyone with even an ounce of Catholicism in their veins (as I, despite my best efforts, still have) will tell you, red wine represents Christ’s blood. So this image clearly refers to both Mary and Jesus, to menstruation and crucifixion, and, for that matter, to oral sex and eating, but how it connects with the rest of the show–a series of rambling monologues interrupted by similarly arty images–is never clear.

Marx could take a lesson from David Hauptschein and Beau O’Reilly, both on the second week’s bill and both practitioners of a laid-back, thoroughly unpretentious kind of self-revelatory monologue. Like Jeff Garlin, Hauptschein and O’Reilly have “thrown away their acts,” spinning their monologues spontaneously. In both cases the result is totally disarming. Hauptschein tells stories of weird people he’s encountered on the el, including an odd character who shouted at him, “Hey, sit with me!” and then admitted, when Hauptschein joined him, that the best way to keep people from sitting with you is to shout “Hey, sit with me!” All of Hauptschein’s stories are told in the rambling, amused, but essentially unpolished style he uses to host his open-mike readings of letters and diaries.

O’Reilly, an accomplished musician and theater artist, has a much more theatrical style, which adds authority to his words without making them seem fake or actorly. The night I caught his “Solopalooza” act, he spent the first third of his monologue recounting the cab trip to the theater. And this rather mundane story, during which he commented on such subjects as the way the cab driver listened to the radio and the way streets look when the lights are out, had us all on the edge of our seats as if he were singing of the sacking of Troy or recalling what it was like at Iwo Jima. The way O’Reilly pauses midsentence, searching for the right word or holding a thought for emphasis, is itself a thing of beauty. Later, when he got to the real meat of his monologue–the story of breaking up with his longtime significant other, living alone, finding a new lover, and discovering that his body is aging–one couldn’t help being moved, as if in revealing these intensely personal details O’Reilly were giving us a gift.

Danny E. Thompson and David Isaacson–both founding members of Theater Oobleck–perform a much rarer kind of piece, the one-person political satire. It’s not hard to see why, in these dark reactionary days, artists and arts councils alike might shy away from a genre like satire. Especially when the satire more closely resembles Swift and Voltaire than the toothless movie and TV-show send-ups the folks at Mad fill their worry-free magazine with. But both Isaacson and Thompson used their time onstage to savage the new Newtonian Speaker of the House. Isaacson indulged in a witty retelling of the Dr. Seuss classic, calling his piece How the Gingrich Stole Christmas.

Thompson did something considerably braver and more challenging theatrically. Using kitchen implements, stuffed toys, and grocery items, he put on a puppet show, Newt on a Hot Tin Roof, recounting Gingrich’s rise from untenured professor at a small Georgia college to his current status as biggest bully on the block. The piece is full of delightful digs at Bush and Clinton, played respectively by a potato and a yam, yet accomplishes Thompson’s goal: exposing the dark side of Gingrich’s character, deathbed divorces and all. Thompson treats his material with such daring and cleverness he made me wish more solo performers would follow his lead.

Sean Masterson’s one-man magic act is not part of “Solopalooza,” but since he bills himself as a magician and storyteller one could be forgiven for assuming his act is yet another spin on the solo performance. It is, but just barely.

Masterson doesn’t spend much time telling stories in his hour’s worth of card tricks. In the most involved one he folds a playing card into the shape of a frog who’s searching for a princess to kiss him and turn him back into a face card. Nor is his act as polished or well researched as Ricky Jay’s. And though his tricks are as astounding as Ricky Jay’s, there are far fewer of them. Masterson’s 52 assistants don’t work as hard.

But Masterson does allow children at his shows. In fact, he has a gift for talking to kids and making them giggle without talking down to them. And at $7.50 for adults and $3.75 for children, the tickets are considerably less expensive than for Ricky Jay. Just don’t go expecting art.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Florence Bonneau.