The Video Fireplace

Frank Melcori

at Cafe Voltaire, through April 15

Conflict of Interest

Achy Obejas and Carmela Rago

at Link’s Hall, March 4 and 5

Though its roots are in the visual arts, performance as it’s practiced today is as much a reaction to the slick fakery of contemporary theater, movies, and TV as it is a rebellion against the commodification of art, so often for sale in galleries and museum gift shops. Hence the large number of performers who don’t so much play a character as use the performance to strip themselves psychologically bare before a live audience.

Even a performer like Eric Bogosian, who has spent his career playing various slimy characters–obnoxious emcees, asshole Hollywood agents, pathetic drunks–still depends upon the performance itself to add an edgy subtext to his work. And that’s why there’s a quantum difference between watching Bogosian perform and watching someone else attempt to bring Bogosian’s writings to life. Watching Bogosian play this or that paranoid slimeball, it’s hard not to wonder to what extent Bogosian is really just playing Bogosian.

Chicago-based monologuist Frank Melcori invites similar musings. In his current show, The Video Fireplace, Melcori “plays” four characters–a man named Frank, Frank’s therapist, Frank’s best friend, and Frank’s girlfriend. Unlike Bogosian, however, Melcori is not known for his mimicry. In fact, Melcori plays all four in the same flat, matter-of-fact tone of voice. In theater, such lackluster acting would be a sign of weakness, but here it’s actually a strength: his strikingly unflamboyant style both disarms the audience–we feel we’re watching a somewhat gifted friend in his living room, and so have lower expectations–and disguises the true depth of this unassuming piece.

The short two-person conversations that make up The Video Fireplace are likewise so convincingly ordinary–Melcori has a great ear for the way people talk–that they could pass for mere transcriptions. And the fact that all the dialogues are more or less concerned with Frank’s discovery of his own and his girlfriend’s depression and with his various misguided attempts to get rid of it seems at first to support the idea that Melcori’s show is a mere variation on the kind of confessional one-person shows popularized by Spaulding Gray.

Melcori’s show does work as a small tragicomedy of everyday life. It’s hard not to be moved watching Frank’s awkward attempts to make small positive changes in his life or to be fully understood by his girlfriend or his best friend. And because Melcori has a touch of the clown about him, much of his show is both moving and funny.

But Melcori–a fixture on Chicago’s performance and off-off-Loop theater scenes for the past ten years–is actually far more sophisticated a performer than he lets on, and for those willing to look beneath the surface of his work, he has more to say than the confessional performer’s autobiographical lament: “This happened to me, and then this happened to me, and then this, and then this.”

Stealing a page from Samuel Beckett’s book of alienation tricks, Melcori performs the whole work with his head sticking through a hole in a sheet of canvas hanging from the Cafe Voltaire ceiling. (He used a similar device a number of years ago when he directed Beckett’s three-person Play at Gare Saint Lazare.) This simple prop adds a layer of irony to the work that transforms it into a sort of critique of itself and, by framing the piece, transforms mere recollected conversation into art. Melcori in effect both mocks himself for being a “talking head” and raises the question of whether what he’s doing is a work of art. A question also raised by the show’s witty, self-deprecating title.

In The Video Fireplace Melcori plays a kind of passive-aggressive game, daring people to take his message literally–“Hey, I’m just a nice guy with troubles”–even as he supplies lots of evidence that there’s more going on than this. Whether you buy into this game depends a lot on whether you find it amusing or annoying. I find it a wonderful antidote to all those puffed-up, superslick “artists” currently clotting up the performing-arts scene with their self-conscious, arty work–Robert Wilson, Laurie Anderson, Stephen Sondheim–who don’t really have a lot to say but say it so flamboyantly it passes for a lot.

Melcori has a lot to say, he just says it in such an unassuming way that if you don’t listen carefully, you’ll miss it entirely.

Carmela Rago and Achy Obejas played a similar game in their recent show Conflict of Interest, the second part of the “Worlds Colliding Performance Series.” But they had less success, in large part because Rago and Obejas, as performance critics–both write for the Reader and the Tribune–have considerably more trouble than Frank Melcori playing “just plain folks” onstage. In fact, most of their attempts to appear naive ring false–Rago and Obejas make their strongest points when they play with the audience’s awareness of their positions in the performance world. Before the show, they handed out notepads and invited the audience “to review them,” an invitation Obejas expanded on in the second half by explaining in detail how to submit their reviews to the Reader.

These moments of self-conscious demystification of the critic’s role are wonderfully liberating. And if Rago and Obejas had constructed a whole performance around such a theme, they would have had quite a show. Instead, what they have in Conflict of Interest is what looks like a random selection of old and new work hurriedly tossed together and performed with a kind of winning charm and crazy spontaneity that almost (but not quite) makes up for the many rough spots and holes.

The evening began with a performance by Rago, “The Return,” in which she reminisced about the gallery scene in the early 80s and her dysfunctional relationship with a sick but charismatic artist. As in most of Rago’s performances, a mostly unstated sorrow suffuses the work, giving even Rago’s more humorous moments–like her self-deprecating description of her postadolescent narcissism–a wonderful poignancy.

Obejas followed with a reading of her own moving short story, “We Came All the Way From Cuba So You Could Dress Like This?” about a woman her age who emigrates with her family from Cuba in late 1963. It’s part of the point of the “Worlds Colliding” series (which Obejas also curates) to juxtapose the work of a writer and a performance artist, perhaps to raise the question to what extent a short story reading is a performance. But I hope that question is not the point, because every discussion I get into about what is and is not performance ends up with the conclusion that everything human beings do is performance. Even this review. Even your reading of this review. And once you reach that point, when everything is everything, there’s nothing left to say except: wow.

Both of these solo pieces are fine, though they seem a bit conservative. Rago, for example, has performed other, more poignant solo reminiscences. But the last piece, a collaboration also called “Conflict of Interest,” is clearly an attempt at something new for both artists. This two-person piece, which uses as its jumping-off point the sadomasochistic relationship between the mistress and the maids in Jean Genet’s The Maids, explores Rago’s and Obejas’s lives as working performance critics.

The piece begins strongly, with the two of them carefully explaining the differences in their performance styles–Rago comes from a performance-art background, while Obejas worked for a while as an actress–then wittily contradicting themselves: Rago turns out to be the more polished, more actorly performer, while Obejas wins the audience over with her relaxed, charming stage persona.

Quickly, however, “Conflict of Interest” begins to fall apart. What starts out as a self-parodic look at a free-lance critic’s life turns into a series of self-indulgent in-jokes about the Tribune, local performance artists, and the difficulties of reviewing performance while continuing to perform oneself. Many of these bits are fun- ny–notably a throwaway line about Paula Killen’s “thick press packet”–but they don’t make up for the fact that Rago and Obejas don’t really have much to say about either the critic’s job or the difficulties of reviewing in a city in which the critics and performers all know each other. Nor do Rago and Obejas do more than touch on how becoming critics has affected their work as performers.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Marc PoKempner.