at Cafe Voltaire

I’ve been seeing so many plays in the basement of Cafe Voltaire that I’ve almost forgotten what it’s like to see a play in a space built for theater. Not that I’m complaining. Cafe Voltaire is one of my favorite spaces, with its low ceiling, sagging orange velour couches, and dusty corners. The actors are never more than 20 feet away from the audience, creating an intimacy you wouldn’t find at the Goodman or Steppenwolf.

The theater companies that perform at Cafe Voltaire have little money. They could never afford a set like the one for Goodman’s Two Trains Running, which has real glass windows and working lights. Most of the plays I’ve seen at Cafe Voltaire are stripped down to the essentials: actors, a script, and maybe a chair or two. A person and some words. That’s all that’s necessary to make an audience forget they’re in a dingy basement and believe what’s put before them.

That, and a good story. Which is why “Skirt Solos” is so entertaining. It’s composed of two one-woman one-acts: Tales From the Hut, performed by Julie Cohen, and Personality, performed by Elizabeth Swan. Each one tells a great story about an American Jewish woman’s coming of age. Each one contains a fresh perspective and some interesting insights into contemporary culture. And each one captures our imagination with nothing more than an actor, some words, and a couple of small props.

Tales From the Hut takes place in Detroit around 1968 and follows the reflections of a “13-year-old Jewess becoming a man in the Jewish community.” Yes, a man. She is preparing to celebrate her bar mitzvah, not her bas mitzvah, because “there’s nothing special about becoming a woman in the Jewish community. They’re just housekeepers.”

Throughout the piece her logic might seem a bit skewed, but at the same time it’s right on the mark. Tales From the Hut maintains the innocence of a 13-year-old girl who sees the world with fresh eyes. She rides the bus to Hebrew class every Saturday and makes friends with Alice and Helen, two older African American ladies who always ride the bus at the same time. She chats with them about her studies and about the recent riots. With the logic of an adolescent, she draws similarities between the Hebrew capture of Jericho and the growing white suburbs that strangled black Detroit. She concludes that the riots in Detroit seem awfully similar to the story of the Hebrews endlessly marching around the walls of Jericho to drive its inhabitants into a frenzy. Sure, her conclusion seems far-fetched, but it does provide an unusual perspective.

Writer Roberta Levine has a strong eye for detail and an ability to highlight the subtle ironies of growing up rich and white in Detroit. Cohen plays a young woman who interprets the ways of the world with spontaneity and freshness. It’s a good story overall, well told and well performed–enough to make the show a success.

Equally entertaining, but slightly less successful, is Personality by Gina Wendkos and Ellen Ratner. It’s a well-told story about being young and single in New York City with a nagging Jewish mother and an identity crisis. Swan plays the mother to a T, with her slim cigarettes, nasal Long Island accent, and mass-media-influenced opinions on fame and personality. And in the beginning Swan is hilarious as the daughter Ellen, describing the kinds of people she would like to be. Unfortunately, though, she doesn’t delve deeply enough into Ellen’s insecurities to bring out the story’s bittersweet undertones. Swan has a strong stage presence, but her performance doesn’t quite meet the demands of the script.