The New, More Thrilling Secrets

Boy Girl Boy Girl

at Live Bait Theater, May 7 and 8

David Kodeski has spent the last five years creating beguiling monologues out of books and diaries he’s found in thrift shops. And fittingly, the inspiration for Boy Girl Boy Girl’s debut performance was the August 1957 issue of a lurid tabloid called The New, More Thrilling Secrets. The other solo performers who make up the company–Edward Thomas-Herrera, Stephanie Shaw, and Susan McLaughlin Karp–may not spend their days rummaging around flea markets, but the giddy, thought-provoking incongruities of their solo work are in keeping with the unique allure of thrift shopping. Thrift shoppers hit pay dirt when the intimate and the absurd converge in a single oddity, like the extralarge pair of Care Bears briefs I once ventured across. Most of the Boy Girls’ show, The New, More Thrilling Secrets, is like that pair of underpants, providing each performer an entree into an autobiographical story that’s at once revealing and ridiculous.

Boy Girl Boy Girl has been planning this show for the last year and a half, ever since the four performers went out for Mexican after a Live Bait solo sampler in August 2002. “We decided we all like performing together,” Thomas-Herrera says. “But it takes us forever to do anything.” They wanted to create performances in response to published works, and eventually chose Kodeski’s dog-eared copy of Secrets. Who could resist such headlines as “He Was One of My Attackers, Later He Begged Me to Marry Him” and “When My Husband’s Mind Snapped More Than a Normal Wife Could Bear”? They agreed to take open-ended approaches to the magazine, allowing for what the press release calls “personal perceptions, opinions, tales, tangents, and fantasies.”

The performers’ idiosyncratic explorations may rob the evening of unity, but the approach does offer plenty of room for the imagination. Kodeski ventures the farthest afield, beginning his piece about some audiotapes he found in Australia with a re-creation of John Glenn’s remarks as he orbited the earth in 1962. In this potentially sublime moment, Glenn and an earthbound NASA colleague carry on the most mundane conversation: Glenn might see moonlight washing across an entire ocean, but all he can say is “I feel fine.” Even the glowing lights of Perth elicit little more than a perfunctory thank-you to the inhabitants, who agreed to turn on every light they could as Glenn’s capsule passed overhead.

Suddenly this global perspective disappears, and Kodeski starts describing driving out of Perth across the desolate outback and happening upon–what else?–a junk shop. There he buys 11 cassette tapes, the real-life 1989 audio diary of a 29-year-old romance writer, Sally, who lived near Nottingham Forest and gave names to the objects in her life: William Henry the washing machine, Madge the word processor, Emily the prosthesis. It soon becomes apparent that Sally is battling breast cancer, and as she documents the most painful details of her daily struggles, her true secrets offer a moving counterpoint to the deliberately concocted, moralistic “secrets” of a pulp magazine. In his trademark manner, Kodeski gives nearly mythic resonance to the prosaic leftovers of an unheralded life, describing in the piece’s final moments how he lay in bed listening to Sally’s voice, spanning 15 years and half the globe with more grace and intrigue than America’s most heralded astronaut could muster in his dull public pronouncements.

Thomas-Herrera journeys back some 20 years to reveal the ludicrous yet endearing details of his first romance, when as a 19-year-old would-be genius composer he fell for a 30-year-old would-be genius novelist–who never put pen to paper. “When he told me he was a writer,” Thomas-Herrera says, “I became his emotional slave.” It’s clear that the teenage Thomas-Herrera was a bundle of absurd contradictions–he wanted either to write the world’s greatest opera or to become a VJ on MTV–and that his all-consuming relationship was built on little but aesthetic snobbery and fellatio. Still, through all the turmoil of the doomed affair, he did his best, he says, to remain “as charming as an Alpine village.” And he minces his way through this deliberately overwritten saga with his usual impossible mix of effete snobbery and gleeful self-ridicule. Thomas-Herrera’s tale may be as preposterous and florid as any in the Secrets magazine, but his motive is never to manipulate cheap sentiment. Instead his melodrama reflects the emotional truth of adolescent romance.

In the evening’s most poignant piece, Karp tells her thrilling secret. After returning from her honeymoon, she found herself so depressed she couldn’t get out of bed. She started going to her therapist five days a week, picking over the “minutiae and magnutiae” of her life until the therapist inexplicably decided that Karp needed to be hospitalized. Likening herself to a raccoon she once encountered trapped behind a vending machine in a Loop parking garage, Karp agrees to check herself in and achieves two revelations while in lockdown: the people watching in a psych ward is unparalleled, and it’s time to fire her therapist.

As in her 2001 piece Still, which detailed her experience carrying to term a child she knew would be stillborn, Karp takes her audience to uncomfortable places. Telling her story with a broad, seemingly medicated smile, she presents an absurdly placid exterior that occasionally cracks to reveal the desperate woman beneath it. Only about 20 minutes long, the piece is compact yet rich, seemingly ripe for full-length exploration.

The only monologue that falls flat is Shaw’s straightforward response to the magazine: she explains her distaste for its sexist moralizing–women who venture beyond the confines of the nuclear family or of conventional Christianity must be punished. She also expounds upon her interest in stories of decapitation. The piece skips across so many subjects that it sheds little light on any of them, and Shaw was underrehearsed on opening night, forced to pull her script out from a set piece.

Still, Shaw’s uncharacteristic misfire is the only false note in this Boy Girl Boy Girl hit-and-run production–the group is committed to one-weekend gigs. For the next, reportedly in November, the four are considering starting with Proust, an Italian cookbook, or a Chicago Sun-Times style manual. Whatever, expect another sharp-witted, engaging evening.

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