at Chicago Actors Ensemble

The beast referred to in Carl Coash’s one-man show The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World is Harlan Ellison, the iconoclast, raging egomaniac, and prolific west-coast writer best known for his dystopian short stories, for his two controversial science fiction anthologies (Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions), and for the screenplay for the cult SF movie A Boy and His Dog (and the novella on which it’s based).

But the Ellison that Coash is interested in is not the enfant terrible who once dared, while still in his early 20s, to tell Isaac Asimov he was “a nothing.” It’s the older, sadder, somewhat humbler and more reflective man who emerges in the autobiographical prose published in papers such as the LA Weekly and the now-defunct LA Free Press. And that choice is what makes The Beast (Shoestring Productions) such a fine one-person show.

I should admit that I’m ambivalent about Ellison’s fiction. I appreciate how he (and his generation of science fiction writers) tried to improve the standards of the genre by demanding, in Ellison’s words, “that science fiction be judged by the same high standards as all literary forms.” Yet by those standards Ellison falls short. He too often succumbs to the hack writer’s unearned cynicism–his dark, pessimistic narrative style feels forced, as if he felt he had to write that way or risk being called unhip–and he can’t resist indulging in a little misogyny to boost a flagging narrative.

Ellison’s cruelty to women is most apparent in A Boy and His Dog. The only female character we really get to know turns out to be a bitch, and the rest of the women in this male-dominated post-nuclear-war world are raped, mutilated, and murdered with such frequency it’s clear Ellison intended the violence to be titillating.

By contrast Ellison’s autobiographical essays feel more honest and real, and are far more compelling than his best fiction. This is particularly true of his account of his mother’s funeral (included in the show). It starts out quite funny, with Ellison relating the vaguely anti-Semitic joke he told as part of his eulogy and his sister’s angry response (“Stop him! Stop him! Somebody please stop him!”). But the reminiscence becomes moving as Ellison describes his Jewish mother’s sense of humor (the joke, it turns out, was one of her favorites) and admits how seldom he heard her laugh in the 27 years between her husband’s death and her own.

The remaining pieces in this hour-long show are considerably lighter in tone, but they all have the same tang of truth to them, even Ellison’s Kafkaesque account of the four hours he worked for Disney. (He was fired for joking in the lunchroom that Disney should make a porn film starring Mickey, Minnie, and Goofy.)

Tall, blond, gangly Carl Coash could never be confused with the gray-haired, five foot five Ellison, yet he speaks Ellison’s words with such authority and relish that he’s utterly convincing, even when tossing off the Yiddish Ellison peppers his prose with to prove his pedigree. Coash’s accomplishment was all the more impressive the night I caught his show, when there were at most six people in the hot, muggy theater.

I wish I could say the same of the second one-person show on this bill, The Inside, an autobiographical piece written and performed by Lydia Gartin (and produced by Another Small Black Theatre Company With Good Things to Say and a Lot of Nerves). But she never manages to play herself with the compelling intensity Coash brings to Ellison.

Part of the problem is that Gartin the writer hasn’t yet discovered how to make her very personal stories–about the frustrations of being a talented, sensitive African American woman in a white world–entirely understandable. Sections of her piece, which premiered last May with a larger cast, are quite wonderful, especially the ones in which she addresses directly the ambivalence she feels hanging out with her clever, artistic white friends: even at the most boho art-gallery opening she feels she’s both standing out and unnoticed.

But long sections of the show–especially those related to her long-unrequited love for a man named Jacob–are confused and confusing. They’re not helped by Gartin’s self-indulgent leaping back and forth in time with little regard for whether the audience can follow. And though Gartin has a shy, appealing stage presence, she hadn’t mastered her material the night I attended–throughout the show she kept referring to a notebook that lay open on a music stand. Even her best material suffered from her hesitant, uneven performance.