Trapunto: A Patchwork

of Solo Performances

Trap Door Theatre

By Justin Hayford

What with the Rhino in Winter festival, “Solopalooza,” the “P.S. 122 Field Trips,” Meredith Monk, Kitty Hawk, Blake, Diary of a Skokie Girl, Dorothy L., and Fixin’ to Die, among others, there were some 30 one-person shows in and around Chicago last week. Perhaps it wasn’t the most opportune time for Trap Door to open “Trapunto,” its three-week off-night “patchwork” of solo performances. Most of the pieces are untried, created by people with little or no professional experience; there’s no big draw here. Hell, even the Royal Shakespeare Company couldn’t fill the house a few weeks back. Have these upstarts never heard of niche market saturation?

But then part of the bumbling charm of so many fringe theater artists in town is their willful ignorance of market forces. Almost no one makes a dime. Most put up their own money. They know the bulk of their audience will be their long-suffering friends and family members (if they’re over 30, they’re either True Artists or Royal Chumps). Why not mount ten one-man Hamlets two weeks after Robert Lepage trucked his big-budget techno dazzler to town? The roommate will show up regardless.

During the first two days of “Trapunto,” when six of the festival’s seven pieces opened, audiences ranged in size from 3 to 20. The bigger the house, the larger the percentage of people in the audience who seemed to know one another. With its loose format, no-tech production values, and in-with-the-in-crowd feel, “Trapunto” is as much an exercise in setting up and tearing down three shows a night as it is a public festival.

But for $7 a night–$10 for the whole festival–you could do a lot worse. Ditto at twice the price. The work is generally smart, funny, well prepared, and, above all, interesting. Festival organizer Jessica Putnam has shoehorned a septet of careful, intelligent artists with hardly a shared aesthetic or thematic concern among them into a concertlike free-for-all. The performers tend to hang out in the audience and watch one another’s work. Now and again artistic director Beata Pilch tries to pawn off stale Valentine’s candy on the crowd. All pretensions of high art have been cast to the wind.

The most successful festival entries have been professionally produced before. Lindsay Porter’s autobiographical In the Wilderness played at Cafe Voltaire and the Organic Theater a couple of years ago. Porter’s antiodyssey–the more she seeks adventure, the more she ends up in domestic dead ends–is as surefooted as it is intricately orchestrated. Brett Neveu’s elegant Work Related, a series of enigmatic office vignettes performed by the enchanting Inger Hatlen, opened last year at Cafe Voltaire. Even though Hatlen accidentally destroyed a major prop minutes before curtain on opening night, her performance brought out all the gentle desperation in Neveu’s bleakly poetic script.

Three of the pieces that premiered at the festival–Lesley Bevan’s Flesh & Blood, John Guzzardo’s Grumbles From the Grandmaster, and Putnam’s What’s in a Name?–were hatched in the incubator of Northwestern University’s performance studies department. Putnam’s semiautobiographical fantasy needs to cook a lot longer; her musings about her childhood dilemmas are generic and lackluster. Bevan and Guzzardo better illustrate what Northwestern’s program tends to generate: one-person shows based on the life and work of a literary figure. Back in my NU days, mounting such a piece was a significant undergraduate rite of passage, and those of us who undertook it referred to ourselves swaggeringly as “perf studs.” Bevan and Guzzardo, orchestrating the fictional and autobiographical writings of Louise Erdrich and Robert Heinlein respectively, deliver quintessential perf-stud work: deliberate, articulate, reserved (sometimes to the point of complacency), and theatrically economical.

Both employ a single prop–a red scarf for Bevan, a wooden cane for Guzzardo–as a “transformative device” (perf-stud talk), allowing them to move between multiple characters efficiently. Both find the “tensiveness” (more perf-stud talk) in the parallels between autobiography and fiction. And both embody the highest value instilled in a perf stud: a deep appreciation–some might say musty reverence–for the text. Always giving their writers’ words center stage, Bevan and Guzzardo merely suggest the characters-authors behind the text. Guzzardo even begins his piece behind a lectern, where all of us perf studs spent countless classroom hours perfecting our placement angles and kinesthetic responses. Not for nothing did we call our program the Department of Reading Out Loud.

Both performers know how to make chamber readings engaging–an especially impressive feat for Bevan, considering that Erdrich’s writing is about as interesting as the list of ingredients on the back of a shampoo bottle. But like most perf studs, these should unleash a bit of passion onstage, get carried away and ruffle their own performative feathers.

They could take a lesson from Sharon Gopfert, who gets so delightfully ruffled during her feminist tangle, Self-Consumption, that it’s nearly impossible to avoid getting caught up with her. (She in turn could take a lesson from Bevan and Guzzardo on how to pare the excess.) Gopfert too assembles texts–by Anais Nin, Patti Smith, Virginia Woolf, and herself–but rather than treat them reverentially she tears into them, struggling to free herself of the “good girl” image she sees imposed on her by myriad forces. She screams into a microphone, runs back and forth, throws papers about, then recites a bit of poetry with perfect poise. She’s a riot grrl with a degree in comp lit and a few ballet classes under her belt. Sometimes her roller-coaster ride derails into vituperative feminist cliche. But any woman who strips to the waist, puts herself on display atop a table in a seductive pose, then screams “Stop staring!” isn’t afraid of the occasional head-on collision. Gopfert hasn’t yet found a way to keep herself on track, but when she does, watch out.

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