Carmela Rago

at Gallery 2

September 18 and 19


Jay Batman

at the Bop Shop

September 11 and 25

There’s something compelling about Carmela Rago. She has a winning presence, a reassuring, genuine air about her that makes us feel instantly at ease. When she asks an assistant for water in the middle of a show, no one blinks. It’s fine. She does it so smoothly, never missing a beat, it might even be scripted. But charm wasn’t enough to carry Rago’s Nasty Little Stories–Ten Years Worth, last weekend’s overly long career retrospective at the School of the Art Institute’s Gallery 2.

Clocking in at almost two hours, Nasty Little Stories features seven pieces from Rago’s repertoire, from 1980 to the present. Most have been revised or updated, ostensibly benefiting from her artistic maturity. Yet the works that seemed less complete, less polished, were the most recent: “My Weight Loss Center” and “Millions.”

Generally Rago tells stories about ordinary creatures, usually heterosexual women, often suburban, whose seemingly comfortable lives betray a certain sadness and angst. They have an inability to handle change, and so they tend to rationalize even the most pathetic circumstances. For them, failure would be a personal indictment. “A little happiness is a precious thing,” says one of Rago’s characters–but the line could easily have been spoken by any of them.

Except for the opening work, “The Pig God,” created just this year, the pieces are arranged in chronological order. The earliest, created when Rago was pioneering the local performance scene, are “Parlor Games” (1980) and “No Cover, No Minimum” (1981). Though they’re a little transparent technically, Rago’s humor, wonderful use of props and costume, and general manner carries them. Fundamentally surreal, both pieces are self-effacing, well paced, and fun to watch.

“Living in the Midwest” (1985), which closed the first set, and “Real Life” (1991), which opened the second, could easily be seen as companion works. In both cases a woman is trapped by circumstances, by the flow of time, and by love come and gone. “Living in the Midwest” doesn’t have the brittle darkness of “Real Life,” but they both get at one of Rago’s favorite themes: spiritual isolation. “Real Life,” which follows the format of a nightmarish job interview, has as its chorus a double-edged mantra: “Why did you leave your last position?” the interviewer keeps asking. And Rago keeps answering, but each answer only echoes the question in all its disturbing dimensions.

Nasty Little Stories comes apart with the last two pieces, however. “My Weight Loss Center” is so slight we can’t even tell when it ends. Silly and trite, it confuses the beginning of “Millions,” one of Rago’s few straightforwardly autobiogaphical pieces. Backed by slides of old drawings and family photos, “Millions” attempts to tell the story of the Rago family and the artist’s personal development. But it’s an underdeveloped, unfinished, and unfocused piece. Though it has lovely moments and a few good lines (Rago’s wit is dry, dry, dry), it reaches for a poignancy it’s unable to deliver.

Still, with its collage of personal narratives, “Millions” seems to promise something new: a rawer, less allegorical Rago, whose continuous experimentation is always admirable.

Jay Batman, who’s performing his Thief and Articulate Hero at the Bop Shop, sat front row center at Carmela Rago’s show Friday night. We can only hope that Batman, a graduate student at the School of the Art Institute, took notes. He could use some fresh ideas about where to take his own performance, and watching one of the local scene’s most continuously self-challenging practitioners is a good place to start.

Like Rago, Batman works in persona and monologue. Like Rago, he uses props and costumes, sometimes ingeniously, and has a certain likability. When the guy gets onstage, you want him to knock you out. But unlike Rago, a decorated performance veteran, Batman is still a doughboy. His performances sometimes come off as naive and awkward.

Thief and Articulate Hero is a futuristic fable about truth, individualism, and personal responsibility. The themes are huge, of course, and for all Batman’s earnest efforts (and man, he worked), he simply can’t hold up the weight of it all. Like Rago, he also goes on much too long, unnecessarily testing his audience’s patience.

Still, there are some really shiny moments in Thief and Articulate Hero. Batman has a veritable buffet of voices at his disposal (though he could use a bit more control) and a wonderful way of using his body. He hasn’t figured out how to use all the weapons in his arsenal yet, but that’s OK–there’s a sense, even when he misses the mark, that eventually he will.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Debra E. Levie.