The Harm in Candor

Robbie Morgan

at the Neo-Futurarium, through December 18

A Chicca Looks at 25: A Memoir for the Stage

Jill Elaine Hughes

at the Breadline Theatre, through December 11

Candor is perhaps the most valuable currency a solo performer has to offer. Few things are more likely to make an artist unlikable than an unwillingness to stand sincerely before us, instead hiding behind literary skill, technical wizardry, or grandiloquent acting. If you’ve ever had to endure a solo performer who spent the evening acting like herself rather than being herself, you know how precious candor can be.

On the other hand, candor without craft often produces some form of therapy session. Robbie Morgan doesn’t succumb to this in her solo The Harm in Candor, but its title should be scrawled in large letters above the desk of every monologuist in town who believes that a troubled childhood, offbeat family, or sexual quirk makes her interesting. The trick in confessional solo performance is to give the audience more than oneself while remaining oneself.

Morgan seems aware of this dilemma and has devised a host of curious strategies to deal with it in her hour-long lecture-demonstration. For one thing she offers generous helpings of audience participation and poetic digression. She begins by handing each audience member a blank slip of paper, an envelope, and a pencil and requesting that we write a secret about ourselves, seal it in the envelope, and return it to her. Then she gives us a hearing test, asking us to raise our hands whenever we hear various sounds on a tape (she concluded that we were able to hear 85 percent of them). Next she fills in the blanks on a quiz mounted on an overhead projector, correctly identifying her own name, hometown, phone bill amount, and best friend’s address. Then she asks audience members to recite back the information she just divulged, grading our retention. Each of these three-minute sections, like almost everything else in the piece, begins and ends as though Morgan were switching it on and off.

Her unwavering gaze conjuring up a stern first-grade teacher, Morgan is aggressively pleasant, sometimes to the point of officiousness. Yet she seems to ridicule her own self-importance, using the hokiest technical means to make seemingly irrelevant points. It’s hard to imagine where she’s headed with this piece, her emphatic cadence pressing significance into every trivial detail while her intentionally slipshod presentation renders the whole affair ludicrous.

Morgan never finds a clear trajectory through The Harm in Candor, but then that may not be her aim. She seems intent on creating a world of information overload that cannot support an intelligible worldview, consistent narrative, or cohesive self. Isolated facts, like her father’s first name or Ben Crenshaw’s alma mater, end up printed across the back wall of the theater next to a few randomly selected audience secrets, which she makes us spell out through games of hangman. Each time she launches into a new segment it’s as though nothing that preceded it mattered anymore; in one sequence, she first attempts to hypnotize the audience, then pulls someone out of the front row to dance with her, then recites an evening’s television listings to smoky jazz accompaniment. The Harm in Candor is like a television newscast: mini stories appear and disappear without context, the most tragic butted up against the most trifling.

But as Morgan bounces aimlessly along, all options before her being equal, she keeps returning to her audience’s secrets, as though trying to make sense of us through the tiny glimpses into our lives she’s received. Halfway through the piece she offers money to people who will tell her something, anything about themselves. Then she takes a few confessional turns herself, sitting on the floor beneath a tiny suspended roof and reporting her childhood sexual exploits and adolescent romantic deceptions. Soon candor overwhelms her and she admits that she crapped in her pants in first grade, that she was caught house-sitting someone’s marijuana plants as an adult, that she leaked menstrual blood all over her uniform during a softball game as a kid. But this route is a dead end too; as becomes abundantly clear, tiny revelations don’t add up to anything approaching a self either. And in any event, they may all be lies.

In essence Morgan seems to ask how real candor, real intimacy, real selves can be constructed in a mass-media world where information is mistaken for knowledge and a handful of discrete facts is mistaken for a life. It’s an intriguing but underdeveloped premise, in large part because Morgan’s approach is as splintered as the world she wants to critique. With so many seemingly unrelated segments, so many shifts in style, no coherent performance vocabulary emerges. Ideas and images don’t evolve because so many of Morgan’s episodes seem isolated and significant only to her. And since most segments disappear without a trace, the piece tends to erase itself as it goes along.

If Morgan could find some kind of consistent imagery in her self-consciously inconsistent world, she might be able to bring The Harm in Candor into sharper focus. In this debut effort she proves herself a remarkably self-assured performer unwilling to spoon-feed her audience. Now she’s got to give us just a bit more to chew on.

Jill Elaine Hughes in A Chicca Looks at 25: A Memoir for the Stage uses a much more conventional approach, telling the story of her upbringing in a dysfunctional suburban family and its crippling effect on her adult life. “There’s a theory that the more screwed up the childhood, the greater the artist,” she says early in the show. “If that’s true, I could have won five Nobel Prizes by now.”

Hughes suffered through multiple divorces, a father devoted to re-creating medieval pageants in his backyard, a stepmother who believed that no event had happened unless she’d written it down in her daily calendar, and a second stepmother who made endless lists of her stepchildren’s faults. As a result Hughes can’t sustain a meaningful romantic relationship and spends too much time in singles bars flirting with horny middle-aged men.

Despite a few colorful passages, Hughes’s narrative is rather sketchy and schematic, lacking the sort of rich, human detail that might help an audience feel the injuries she insists she suffered. As it stands, her upbringing seems odd and at times unsettling but hardly traumatic. And with her sardonic, recriminating tone, she rarely offers a moment of real vulnerability, making her a difficult figure to empathize with. For all her dogged efforts to reveal herself to the audience, Hughes ends up hidden behind her own incomplete narrative.

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