My Dirty Little Secret

Marianna Runge

at Live Bait Theater, through August 24

Are You There, God? It’s Me, Kristin

Kristin Garrison

at Live Bait Theater, through August 24

Tastes Like Chicken

Jonathan Pereira

at Live Bait Theater, through August 23

Given the graveyardlike emptiness at most of the “Fillet of Solo Festival” openings last weekend, Live Bait Theater’s seventh annual event is unlikely to fill the company’s coffers. But artistic director Sharon Evans is probably not sweating the meager box-office take–she has bigger fish to fry. Since opening Live Bait’s doors 14 years ago with James Grigsby’s demanding, mind-addling Terminal Madness, she’s given some of the city’s most inventive monologuists–Jeff Garlin, Marcia Wilkie, Edward Thomas-Herrera, Cheryl Trykv, David Kodeski, Lisa Buscani–a place to hone their skills. This year’s festival, packed with untested material by little-known artists, makes it clear that Evans hopes to cultivate a new generation of solo performers. And three fascinating performers offer evening-length premieres that mark them as potential stars.

Marianna Runge, Kristin Garrison, and Jonathan Pereira are currently hacking their way through difficult, beguiling, and at times confused material. None has settled into a wholly successful style, and only Runge’s piece has a discernible (if truncated) arc. But watching these intelligent, appealing, unapologetic performers struggle to find their voices is a fringe dweller’s delight. Unlike the festival’s “solo sampler” evenings–made up of ten-minute efforts that often feel too green to sustain even that brief time–these awkward, unfinished pieces hint at meanings yet untapped.

Runge’s My Dirty Little Secret, the most coherent and satisfying of the three, has a conventional structure and uncomplicated approach that also make it the most accessible. Unlike Garrison and Pereira, who build their works on tangentially related or unrelated fragments, Runge tells a linear autobiographical story, part of a long tradition of confessional monologues. At first it seems she’ll make the form even more self-indulgent and fraudulent than usual: she sits cross-legged, barefoot, her furrowed brow telegraphing some manufactured concern. “Shame,” she intones, then pauses dramatically. “I have shame about things I am doing or have done.” She struggles to continue, a bundle of self-conscious nerves, as though she can’t find the words to tell whatever painful story she’s undoubtedly scripted long ago and rehearsed for months. Finally she admits her secret: she relishes going to church every Sunday. Suddenly we understand that she’s parodying the feigned trauma of all the simulated confessions that have preceded hers.

This sly opening allows Runge to ridicule her own self-important posture–a bit of self-mockery that allows us to enjoy the next hour, when she talks about nothing but herself. In the first section, which lasts about 45 minutes, she simply chronicles her on-again, off-again relationship with Catholicism, wondering repeatedly why she can’t admit the importance of her faith even to her closest friends. Her devout but foulmouthed grandmother forced her to attend Sunday mass as a child, though she couldn’t follow the service and merely pretended to pray while singing the theme from The Muppet Show to herself. When she takes her first Communion, the cardboardlike host gets caught in her throat and she “coughs up Christ on the carpet” while her grandmother hangs her head and murmurs, “Barney’s balls!” A decade or so later, when Runge sees her grandmother dying of cancer, she instantly loses her fledgling faith, convinced that no God could inflict such suffering on a woman who never missed church.

Runge explores her mammoth topic–the quest for faith–in discrete, manageable, uninflated episodes. As a result the material never feels forced, though Runge’s performance is at times a bit mannered. Fortunately her writing never is: she dispenses with literary flourishes to focus on incidental details that capture a mood or convey a psychological state. It’s as though she constructed the piece using a camera rather than a typewriter, offering the vivid, concrete details often lacking in autobiographical performance.

After the first section, reconstructing her 30-year battle with Catholicism, Runge changes gears and talks about her job as a phone sex operator. This jarring shift is as destabilizing as the tremors that must have unmoored Runge and led to her new occupation. Because these stories are the piece’s funniest and most unsettling–one of her callers only gets off when she gives him advice on home decorating–suddenly the show is up for grabs. Which of Runge’s regular activities is her dirty little secret, going to church or bringing men to orgasm? Eventually it becomes clear that these two pursuits, situated at opposite ends of the respectability continuum, cause her equal soul-crushing shame.

This second section places Runge at the center of a potentially thrilling conundrum. But at this point she brings the show to an abrupt and pat conclusion, as though she felt she had to get offstage within an hour. My disappointment was akin to discovering the last chapter of a novel ripped from its binding: producing a titanic third act for My Dirty Little Secret could prove to be Runge’s entree into the monologuists’ major league.

Kristin Garrison is already a major-league performer. In Are You There, God? It’s Me, Kristin, this young, charismatic Washington, D.C., transplant shows that she can claim a room. Whether holding forth onstage or dashing through the theater’s aisles, she seems to be with her audience rather than performing at us or even to us. Picking up the slightest shift in our attention and energy, she stays in near perfect sync with a bunch of strangers while following her monologue’s decidedly circuitous path. Whether exploring the subtle shades of meaning of the word “dude,” remembering her envious admiration of a well-developed high school girl (“a Mack truck of sexual energy”), or questioning the sanity of a stock market that can plunge on news of increasing corporate profits, Garrison has a knack for revealing the complex absurdities of everyday life.

Although at times her methodical approach results in rather labored pacing, for the most part Garrison captivates by the sheer ingenuity of her wit. Now she needs to make more sense of her disjointed musings. With no discernible through line, Are You There, God? seems a collection of ten-minute bits, not a coherent whole: because her images rarely evolve, the piece never develops much momentum or many larger ideas. For her material to be as memorable as she is, Garrison needs to rely more on structure than on quirks.

Pereira faces a similar problem in his bewildering Tastes Like Chicken. The most adventurous writer of the bunch, he’s working toward a quasi-hallucinatory structure in which each segment morphs out of the previous one. He begins by describing his high school crush on a girl named Gail, then becomes an adolescent version of himself (or so it seems) who telephones Gail in a thick wigger accent–and is baffled when she thinks he’s black. Then he’s a substitute teacher fighting to be heard over the puerile antics of another–or perhaps the same–wigger student. After reading a story from Harper’s Bazaar about an aspiring foot model, Pereira mimes channel surfing and happens upon a news broadcast about the wigger’s arrest.

Things get no clearer as the evening progresses–it’s difficult to say where Pereira is headed with this material. He flirts with issues of racial identity, but his final thoughts on the irrationality of prejudice feel more random than conclusive. Still, he’s a mesmerizing performer with a gift for physical comedy and the courage to structure a monologue in a highly unconventional manner–so unconventional that it’s never clear who the “real” Pereira might be. Someday he may unlock the enormous potential evident in this debut effort.