Tour de Femme

at Live bait Theatre

In skilled hands–Erika Yeomans and John Dooley’s at Doorika, Joy Gregory’s at Lookingglass, or David Pavkovic’s at Cook County Theatre Department–a theatrical collage allows powerful associations to arise. Cutting and pasting reality, these artists create composite images that offer clusters of meaning that simple narrative can only approximate.

In less skilled hands, a collage can degenerate into a near total disregard for structure. Images–the more disparate the better–are simply strung together in a series, without regard for how they unfold in time or resonate with one another.

Unfortunately, such is the case with Jo Carson’s Stories I Ain’t Told Nobody Yet, being given its Chicago premiere by Tour de Femme. Carson intends to present myriad facets of life in her native Tennessean Appalachians. Assembled under such broad headings as “Family,” “Environment,” “Life,” and “Death” are stories that range from one-liners to confessional monologues to full dramatic scenes. Each of these forms is used to probe the reality behind mountainlife stereotypes. As one character announces early in the evening, “Mountain people can’t read, can’t write, don’t wear shoes, don’t use soap, and don’t talk plain. . . . Well, let me tell you: I am from here, and I’m not like that, and I am damned tired of being told I am.”

Yet Carson’s individual stories hardly probe the psychological depths of her characters, who are frustratingly one-dimensional and cliched: a highly intuitive mother who can’t understand her educated daughter’s dependence on books and rules, a disillusioned factory worker trying to understand why he was laid off after many years of service, a woman finding the courage to leave an abusive husband. Each of these stories is presented almost as an outline: the major points are sketched, but the details are left out. Given that Carson crams perhaps 50 stories into her script, it isn’t surprising that few if any of them achieve a rich, three-dimensional quality.

Moreover, Carson does little to weave these stories into a meaningful shape. Themes don’t develop beyond a repeated admiration of natural beauty and a disdain for progress at the expense of that beauty. Even simple rhythmic patterns do not emerge; it seems any five-minute section could be interchanged with any other. This structure not only makes the script fairly uniform in tone, but it prevents any coherent picture of “mountain life” from developing. And without a clear image of these characters’ world Stories I Ain’t Told Nobody Yet loses its primary dramatic focus.

Rather than working to overcome these flaws, Tour de Femme’s production indulges them. Under Jensen Wheeler’s direction, each segment–one-liner or full scene–is presented in precisely the same fashion. Stories are generally kept discrete, not allowed to intermingle or refer to one another. The whole production has an encyclopedic feel.

The production is also burdened with hokey, stilted directorial choices that underscore the triteness of the text rather than engender a feeling of simplicity or quaintness. And there’s a lot of phony playacting–scurrying to get out of an imaginary rainstorm and carrying on sotto voce conversations while someone else tells a story on the other side of the stage. All of this not only seems painfully dated, but works against the central dramatic convention of the piece: these are people in a theater telling stories directly to an audience. To have them act as though they’re unaware of what’s happening five feet away simply makes no sense.

The production is further inhibited by the half a dozen songs by J.B. Skye used to introduce each section of the evening. Not only are the songs rather generic–with lyrics like “Money comes and money goes / But love will keep us strong,” and “Time is wisdom / And wisdom speaks”–but they’re sung by Terence Gallagher, whose propensity for wandering pitch and garbled diction turns the inconsequential into the unintelligible.