SUSIE LUCK: HOSTESS OF MENTAL FLORIDA
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I once got into an argument with an actor friend of mine when I dared to suggest that actors and playwrights might learn something from performance artists. My friend snorted sarcastically, “There’s a lot they could teach us: self-indulgence, pretension, incomprehensibility.”
Since then I’ve noted with secret satisfaction the increasing number of productions–by performers as varied as Spaulding Gray, Lynn Book, Donna Blue Lachman, and the Neo- Futurists–that successfully combine theater and performance art to create hybrid works that are both more daring than mainstream theater and still quite entertaining.
Of course, not every hybrid turns out to be as hardy as Gray’s The Terrors of Pleasure or the Neo-Futurists’ Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. Take, for instance, Dan Ursini’s Susie Luck: Hostess of Mental Florida. Please.
Here is a work that combines the incomprehensibility of bad performance art with the faked sincerity and forced charm of failed theater. In fact, as delivered by Jane Baxter Miller as Susie Luck, this monologue is confusing and even incoherent.
The character Susie Luck first appeared in Ursini’s play Sandbar Flatland, which was written under the name Edward Urcen and first performed years ago by Steppenwolf Theatre in its Highland Park home. In this expansion of her story, the young woman who breaks away from her downstate Illinois family is lost beneath layers and layers of ambiguity and detail. Susie Luck herself is an unreliable narrator, so given to euphemisms and clever turns of phrase that it’s hard to tell what she’s talking about. For example, when she refers early in the show to living in “Mental Florida” it’s not clear whether this indicates her unsinkable optimism or whether she has completely lost her marbles.
And just when you think you’ve got a handle on what is going on, her story becomes downright surreal: she talks about “teaching her teeth to crochet” and refers to the time her family “donated” her to the zoo. An indication that Luck speaks to us from a mental institution? Perhaps. But Ursini never furnishes us with enough information to figure it out. When Gogol’s clerk in Diary of a Madman says he’s “in Spain,” we know he’s in an asylum. But when Ursini’s eccentric Susie Luck says her family made her live in the crow’s nest of a ship, we don’t know what to think.
For the past ten years or so, Ursini has been primarily a novelist and poet, and he has a gift for writing lines at once poetic and credible as speech. (“I’m a treacherous and furious eavesdropper.”) But he packs the monologue so densely with images, details, and cryptic references that it ends up being mystifying. Putting so much into each line may work in poetry, where you can always reread a line, but in theater you only get one chance.
Jane Baxter Miller tries a little too hard to ingratiate herself with the audience. Dressed in a grass skirt, blue top, orange hat, and gold slippers, she hands out silly party hats to help us get into the spirit of the show. Her Susie is such an eternally cheerful and charming person that it’s hard to take seriously the sadder side of her character. There’s a hint that she may be lonely living away from her family, but it’s lost in the chaos.