Carnivale Animale

at the Lunar Cabaret and Full Moon Cafe, through January 28


at the Griffin Theatre Company, through January 28

In the mid-18th century Vienna had composers Mozart, Haydn, Brahms, and Gluck. In the mid-19th century Saint Petersburg had novelists Dostoyevski, Pushkin, Gogol, and Chernyshevsky. In the mid-20th century Cambridge had poets Frank O’Hara, Adrienne Rich, Edward Gorey, and Kenneth Koch. Whatever benevolent deity is responsible for such harmonic convergences currently smiles upon Chicago’s solo-performance community; with artists like Jeff Garlin, Marcia Wilkie, Cheryl Anderson, Jenny Magnus, Steve Brown, Paula Killen, Edward Thomas-Herrera, and Lawrence Steger, we’re living in the right place at the right time.

Now two more names must be added to the list: Lisa Buscani and Tom Kiehfuss. For their first full-length efforts, both turn in well-written, inventive, thought-provoking pieces–at this point Chicago accepts nothing less. Buscani in Carnivale Animale and Kiehfuss in Stramonium try to find safe passage through dark and brutal landscapes; for Buscani pure animal instinct and for Kiehfuss indifferent fate stalk their every move. Misfortune comes with the dispassionate regularity of the afternoon mail.

Buscani has long figured prominently on the performance scene, with multiple poetry-slam champion-ships and a lengthy stint with the Neo-Futurists under her belt. As a solo performer she has focused over the last seven years on three- and five-minute pieces, but broke that mold in 1992 with her 20-minute piece about serial killers, “Flat Black,” which appeared as part of Blushing Under the Mushroom. The queen of hit-and-run performance, she’s earned a loyal following and published a volume of poetry. To suggest she should be “added” to any list may strike some as odd.

But for a solo performer in the commodity-minded arts world, a full-length piece is the price of admission. If you have it, you can be Spalding Gray. If you don’t, you’re a stand-up comic. For her maiden voyage, Buscani sculpted her last two years’ worth of writing, most of it poetry, into Carnivale Animale.

Buscani is an artist fascinated by terror, seduced by cruelty, mesmerized by despair. Armed only with a keen eye, virtuoso story telling, and a boundless sense of humor, she walks through a freak show of her own invention, by turns absurd, pitiless, and horrifying. Whether confronting the ridiculous or the rapacious, she never flinches. As she says early in the piece, “[When] the diamond pinpoint skips / on nature’s age-old groove, / when the grids mismatch / the biological map loses its way, / …we shudder in a thin ascension of arm hair / fight the sour rise of an insolent gullet / press our lips white to keep from howling / to heartless deities / in a desperate attempt to escape the fact / that we cannot stop looking.” The world through which Buscani walks, “the kingdom,” is blind, vicious, and cruel. “It is flesh away from bone with no compunction,” she tells us, then adds slyly, “There is no etiquette in the kingdom.”

Despite the subject matter, Buscani’s approach is not the least bit confrontational. While many performers handling similar material wear their belligerence as a badge of honor, imagining that they alone can face life’s darkest truths, Buscani invites us in with a smile and a laugh; she’s not so sure she wants to go on this journey either. This kingdom is full of brutal, almost childlike extremes, a world of monster movies seen while curled up under an afghan on the sofa late at night. Such extremes are evident from the opening moments of Carnivale Animale, when Buscani first appears in a full-length red satin gown with spaghetti straps, double slit up the front to reveal mottled black tights and combat boots. With her booming voice, her imposing stature, and her voluptuous, amply exposed flesh, Buscani is threatening, awesome, and gorgeous: Joan Jett meets Kathleen Battle.

Launching into her first story, Buscani describes a trip to a petting zoo as a young child where she was to “sit side by side / with other creatures new in their species / and reassure my parents of a world in continuum.” Instead she’s surrounded by five starved lambs who, “with that typical animal lack of diplomacy,” descend upon her “not caring whether they took a bit of finger / in with the grain, / teeth grinding and eyes rolling and saliva pouring, / …their faces fierce with dumb demand / ….They ate like ANIMALS!”

Characteristically, Buscani rever-ses expectations, turning cute little lambs into carnivorous killers. The same technique functions even more powerfully later in the evening when she confronts her archenemy, the Privileged White Male. She sees him across a crowded bar, describing him as “healthshined and youthtight…cornfed and pathologically well.” In an open rehearsal of Carnivale several weeks ago, she unloaded all her venom on him, turning the segment into a petty, mean-spirited affair. But in the final version she’s made an ingenious change, and without changing the text. For a moment Buscani becomes the man, describing himself in the third person: “Loss hasn’t occurred to him. / Hunger has never truly pinched its way / down his bowels.” He becomes vaguely aware of a great emptiness in his life, but it’s an emptiness so far beyond his known reality that he cannot feel its pain. This gentle, heartbreaking moment allows Buscani to tell a series of stories about rabid misogynists without simply blaming or vilifying them–without turning the kingdom into “man plus sex equals pig,” in the words of Chicago playwright Bryn Magnus. On some level, these ugly bands of men feeding off a pack mentality are tragic figures, their souls half dead, suffocated by their fear of the feminine. They too are victims of the kingdom’s unrelenting fury.

As the piece progresses, the kingdom slowly closes in on Buscani. The stories begin safely enough, as she watches Hitchcock’s The Birds on late-night television or recounts the story of sideshow freak Grady Styles, the Lobster Boy. But soon drunk Cubs fans appear in Buscani’s neighborhood, calling out insults as she walks home trying to disguise her permanent limp. Then she’s cornered in the Wiener Circle restaurant late at night by a crowd of fraternity boys when a soused Paula Killen screams at them, “You fucking yuppies!” (It’s worth the price of admission to see Buscani’s three-second impression of Killen.) Near the end of Carnivale Animale she tells about finally bringing herself to edit an article for Chicago Dental Society Review about a woman killed by her husband: the marks of his teeth were permanently embedded in the flesh around her nipple. Buscani could barely bring herself to look at the photo of the woman’s breast, and on opening night she could hardly bring herself to tell the story.

As the kingdom closes in, Buscani allows the heightening stakes of the piece to drive her forward, moving from lyric formality in the first half to full emotional commitment by the end, becoming so immersed in the experience that even words, her stock-in-trade, no longer suffice. Trying to explain why she left the dental story unedited on her desk for weeks, she says, “I couldn’t…” It is the only sentence in the hour-long piece she doesn’t complete, and those unspoken words are devastating.

It’s hard to believe Carnivale Animale is built entirely of older pieces, written months and even years apart. Judicious editing by Buscani and director Tina Lilly and Lilly’s exquisite pacing have produced a work that is fresh, vital, and powerfully moving. This organic, unified piece not only secures Buscani’s place on the A list, it moves her right to the top.

With his tentative first offering, Stramonium, Kiehfuss shows that he has a long way to go to reach Buscani’s standard. But he has the raw talent to get himself there eventually.

Stramonium feels more like a fragment than a completed piece. The stories of the three characters–a perpetually frustrated son, a hardened father, and a cynical angel of death–overlap in a tantalizingly ambiguous way. For example, the angel once received an order to take the souls of 60 paratroopers over Korea, and the father tells us he was a paratrooper over Korea (he even wears a flak suit whenever he appears), suggesting either that he escaped fate or that he speaks from beyond the grave.

Like Buscani, Kiehfuss demonstrates a great command of language and unearths compassion in the most unlikely places. The angel can barely bring himself to kill one of the paratroopers, for instance, because he admires the man’s pride in having packed everyone’s chutes so neatly. However, Kiehfuss unwisely gives all three characters completely different costumes; repeatedly hustling offstage to change, he wedges several minutes of dead space into a 45-minute piece. Distilling each costume to a single item, a hat or a pair of glasses, might help.

In fact Kiehfuss should perhaps get rid of the father and son characters altogether. True, that would eliminate the inherent father-son-holy ghost trinity, but both father and son are thin in comparison to the beautifully drawn angel of death, who saunters about in a rumpled swallowtail tux sipping martinis, hoping to numb his conscience. His caustic barbs never completely hide the fact that a tender heart makes him wholly unsuited for his job; he is a truly pathetic character. If he alone were to tell the story of Stramonium, Kiehfuss might find a way to bring the enticing fragments he’s created together.

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