at the Goodman Studio Theatre

September 10-27

A compact woman with flailing arms and a tumble of curly blondish hair is being born from the darkened space at the Goodman Studio Theatre. A spotlight illuminates first her hands, then her face, then her body, and grows until the stage is fully illuminated and the music fades. Refreshingly, Reno has dressed down for her Chicago debut in Reno Once Removed. She wears a green pocket T-shirt with her mike attached at the neck, the battery pack tacked to the top of her pleated black trousers for all to see, and black Capezio oxfords.

Now pacing back and forth, Reno speaks to us about the fact that the English language is skewed toward a male perspective. Take the words “wo-man” and “per-son,” she says. This particular brand of feminism seems a bit standard, however, and the capacity audience is not quite there with her yet. She paces, looking almost searchingly at each face as she tries to bring the crowd around to her universe. It happens when she insists on being called a “wo” or a “per.”

This is performance art, but this is also funny. It’s not slapstick or pratfalls, it’s not what has become in most cases the predictable comedy of HBO. Immediately her body moves call to mind vaudevillians like Ed Wynn, yet her at times dark delivery also recalls such performance artists as Eric Bogosian. In an adoring Village Voice review she was called “a shaman,” and indeed she seems a self-deprecating, vexed, hexed sorceress/lightning rod of the disenfranchised 90s, transforming the hurts of the 80s with her humor. Walking to a can of Diet Pepsi perched on a black stool, she pops it open, and the familiar “pssssht!” makes the audience giggle. She tells us that when she took drugs she never touched the stuff–“I wouldn’t want to put all those chemicals in my body!” She laughs, takes a swig, and her one-woman show is now going full tilt.

Reno’s face is oddly beautiful, with large, expressive eyes that flash with anger, compassion, and many years of weariness and hard living. She has a classic nose and Cupid’s bow lips that pull back in a blinding grin when she laughs–which is often. She moves about the stage like a bantam cock, her chest pushed out, fighting, dancing, prancing, punching into the air. Her expressive face and body illustrate a constellation of characters: Jesse Helms, George Bush in his speedboat in Maine, Donald Trump, bank executives, yuppies, an HBO executive, and her mother. She even transforms herself into a host of objects (a fax machine, a Picasso painting), whole countries (America), concepts (debt and manifest destiny), and feelings (paranoia, entitlement).

Silly, fun, contradictory, she tells us that seeing the Mona Lisa at the Metropolitan Museum of Art caused her to become a drunk, but that blaming is a form of denial. She tells a wonderful story about what a schmuck she can be, how she’s so self-righteous about traffic laws that she’ll almost run over a pedestrian who’s jaywalking–“after all, he was jaywalking, he was breaking the law, what was I supposed to do?” She talks quite a bit about her adoptive WASP family, who live just outside of New York, and contrary to what I’d expected from press materials, she in fact transcended blame. She explains that as you get into your 30s and begin to understand yourself, your parents are getting older and consequently sweeter, and you can’t blame them anymore because they’re in essence these sweet old people. As she describes her mother’s mania for order and safety, she mimics her voice and expressions brilliantly, beautifully, and convincingly.

Reno illuminates the hypocrisy and contradictions in all kinds of life situations. She speaks of trying to fire her psychiatrist, a woman who fell asleep during sessions; of corporate America, the banking industry, and Janson’s “white male history of art.” She tells a great story about Nixon speaking at Phoenix House to a group of graduating recovering addicts, gives an incredible explanation of the real meaning of “homoerotic,” and says that Jewish students at her grammar school helped her name her own paranoia–“Oh, there’s a word for what I’ve been feeling.”

Reno’s a town crier, a news reporter having a nervous breakdown, a friend, a sister you hate and love, your friend’s mother who confides in you, your friend, your own mother, your aunt, someone you met on a bus once, an exorcist. She’s an intriguing combination of personae, of opposites: her hair is tipped blond, yet her roots are dark and appear to be graying; her Hispanic features could as easily be those of an Italian, Greek, or Russian Jew. In terms of appearance alone, I can imagine her swathed in mink at the cosmetics counter of Saks Fifth Avenue and as a street urchin. You can imagine her as your fifth-grade math teacher or the class clown–she’s that familiar and accessible.

Her grace and ease belie her boast/lament that she “doesn’t do resume” because of the gaps in her life. It’s obvious from Reno’s movements, even her voice, that something in the way of craft was being honed even during those gaps. She says that when she talks to entertainment-industry execs they ask, “Hey Reno, where’ve you been all this time? How come we’ve only been reading about you in the last three years?” She “explains” where she’s been in a brilliant Dada-esque monologue about her life in particular and politics in general, from around the time of Woodstock to, well, I suppose when she first began talking to suits in 1989. That monologue brings the house down.

I find myself wondering where indeed Reno might have been at various times in the last 15 years. Was she living in Vermont in a commune in the early to mid-70s? Was she ever on the west coast doing experimental theater? Was she in a mime class in Boulder, Colorado? Perhaps I met her in Rhode Island, fixing my car in one of her many incarnations? Who decides when and how it’s time to break into the mainstream? In many ways, it seems Reno’s botched life has given her a plumb line into reality, nuances and subtleties and a depth one can’t find in other, “flavor of the month” performance artists. Yet her approach to her own success has been skittish at best, self-destructive at worst.

The world has been waiting a long time for Reno to decide to emerge. Maybe at one time she thought this couldn’t possibly be a legitimate way to earn a living, it was too fun, too easy–maybe she moved people too effortlessly. Her innate distrust of hypocrisy and convention might have caused her to wonder what the hitch was. And her admitted, well-documented drug dependency and subsequent cold-turkey withdrawal might also have had an influence on her uneasy relationship with success. But whatever her reasons for taking her time, she’s here now, the prodigal daughter returned and embraced by her audience at the Goodman Studio Theatre last Saturday. And the world’s a better place with Reno among us.