At That Time

Lisa Buscani

at Live Bait Theater, through

September 28

Hello Neighbor

Barrie Cole

at the Neo-Futurarium, through October 18

Jenny Jenny Bang Bang

Jennifer Biddle

at Live Bait Theater, through

September 27

By Jack Helbig

Laurie Anderson once called technology the campfire around which we tell our stories–a warm and cozy metaphor meant to flatter techno boosters like Wired magazine. But it hides a sad truth: in our culture, electronic media have become the campfire and the storyteller. While we were once integral to a storyteller’s performance–sitting next to our tribe’s griot as he spoke, laughing and nodding and handing him another drink–now we sit alone in a darkened room, watching, listening, divided from our entertainer by the very technology that brings us together. Anderson was closer to the mark when she quipped: “They say that heaven is like TV. A perfect little world that doesn’t really need you.”

In a culture awash with electronic entertainment, live performances remain popular–because they remind those of us raised on TV, radio, and computer games that we exist, that we matter, that we are absolutely necessary. This is doubly true for solo performers like Lisa Buscani, Barrie Cole, and Jennifer Biddle, who prefer to work without much technological support: a few lighting cues and a handful of sound cues, a couple of props, and the right clothing are all any of these women need to pull off their shows. And even these are not essential. Neo-Futurist and poetry-slam champion Buscani could do her show in your kitchen and be just as good. In fact, I’ve seen Cole and Buscani deliver excellent performances in much more primitive settings than their current venues.

Cole and Buscani have a lot in common. Both know how to command attention onstage. Both feed off the audience’s reactions. Both speak with authority and conviction. Both have a gift for spoken and written language–both are published poets–which translates well in their performances. Of the two, Buscani is the more established, familiar to Chicago from her countless appearances in the late 80s and early 90s in Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, at the Green Mill poetry slam, as a member of the Big Goddess Pow-Wow, and most recently in her one-woman show Carnivale Animale, just before she left for New York.

But in the days since I saw their current shows–Buscani’s At That Time and Cole’s Hello Neighbor–it’s Cole’s that keeps replaying in my head. Part of the explanation is sheer novelty: Cole is in her early 20s, still finding her footing, and clearly having a blast knocking around the stage, learning, making discoveries about herself and her art. By contrast Buscani is an old hand. And for anyone familiar with her work, At That Time is just more Buscani shtick–additional heartfelt performance-poetry pieces extended into stories about urban life, spiced with a (slightly dated) pinch of post-Reagan-era cynicism, a dash of (formerly) hip references to drag queens and the gay pride parade, combined with just the right measure of serious contemporary issues: unsafe sex, IV drug use, AIDS.

I’ve always thought that one of Buscani’s great strengths as a performer was that she failed to acquire the aura of stardom that surrounded her friend and mentor, the blond, ethereal, spacey Paula Killen. She was always plain old Lisa Buscani, just like you and me, only with a gift for poetry. For a time, Buscani even poked fun at her unglamorous self by taking on the campy stage name “La Buscani.” Yet in her newest show she’s carefully coiffed and wearing more makeup in one evening than she probably wore in her previous ten years in Chicago. Maybe this is image-conscious New York showing through. Or maybe it was director Patrick Trettenero’s idea.

Whatever the reason, I don’t like it. Not that she doesn’t look great, but Buscani doesn’t need it. She doesn’t have to be glamorous to keep our attention–she’s a superb comic storyteller capable of finding humor in even the most mundane details. In one piece, she describes how she spent a hilariously long time trying to coax a suspicious cat into his carrier so they could go to the vet.

I don’t want to say that New York has ruined Buscani, because it hasn’t ruined her. But a potentially deadening polish and slickness now characterize her work. And if you want to blame it on New York, I don’t mind. Watching her newest show, I kept wishing to see the old Buscani, the Neo-Futurist with chaos in her heart who gave birth to so many dancing stars.

In some ways Cole reminds me of a young Lisa Buscani, full of ideas and pushing herself hard, though Buscani was never as blissfully unconcerned with what is hip or trendy or correct as Cole is. Instead Cole takes a cue from one of her influences, Gertrude Stein, and loses herself in the world of words, constructing performance pieces that careen wildly through the language, playing fast and loose with it. The love of language suffusing her work is apparent in her fondness for colorful expressions (“I’m as electric as a $500 lightbulb shining in a tar-paper shack”), in the joyful way she twists and toys with the language to suit her needs (“I stand up venomous and impressive”), in her sheer delight as she plays with the sounds and sense of words. In “Peaks, Valleys, Hills, Cities, Water,” for example, Cole says she’s from “Chicago Chicago Chicago Chicago Chicago Chicago,” pronouncing the word differently each time, as if she were trying to squeeze every possible pronunciation and shade of meaning out of the proper noun.

Some sections of Cole’s pieces are so abstract, so tied up in the sound of language, that they’re best enjoyed as pieces of music. Just let the words wash over you and have faith that Cole will eventually get to the point, as she does in “Whew!” a highly poetical parable that begins with an orgy of Cummings-like wordplay, then settles into a folktale about a girl who turns into an elephant and leads her family to spiritual enlightenment.

For all her prodigious sport with the language, Cole never loses her footing. Even in a surreal piece like “Dewberries & Mulberries,” in which she hangs herself on a clothesline (by her hair) while delivering a highly digressive, at times almost psychotic monologue about anything that passes through her brain, we still feel an emotional connection to her character, still care about her, still come away feeling we know something about the strange Appalachian girl Cole creates in the piece.

Jennifer Biddle isn’t even in the same league as Buscani and Cole. Trained in improv, she hasn’t yet transcended that genre’s fondness for quick, easy, flat stereotypes stuck in predictable situations. Each of the five sketches in Jenny Jenny Bang Bang could as easily have come from a Second City-style comedy revue.

There are some marvelous moments in her show, however. The first 90 seconds of “Carol Loses Her Job”–about a woman losing it on one of those Home Shopping Network shows–are fresh and entertaining. Then we realize what’s going to happen, and for the next five minutes or so have to sit through the same shoe falling again and again. More often we can guess the angle from a sketch’s title alone–in “The Groupie” a woman gives tips on sleeping with rock stars, in “Porn Star” a woman tries to convince a friend that she loves appearing in triple-X-rated movies. In any case we get the point long before Biddle arrives at the final punch line.

Biddle also needs to work on varying the pace and energy of her performance. Each sketch is executed in the same bouncy, fake-happy comedy style I remember from her days, several years ago, in the two-woman comedy troupe Alma’s Pantsuit. A little of that goes a long way.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jennifer Biddle; Lisa Buscani photo by Suzanne Plunkett; Barbie Cole photo by Curtis G. Staiger.