Curious Theatre Branch

I’m told the day of the bike messenger is waning. That nowadays documents that used to be messengered–the ones that have to be there NOW!, or worse, THEN!–are sent by fax or E-mail. And it’s true, I haven’t seen as many messengers careening through traffic, zipping through busy intersections, and weaving madly among the cars as I used to in the 80s. Back then it seemed like every third college grad without corporate aspirations (or connections) was doomed to become a bike messenger. Now I guess they all become baristas at Starbucks.

Actor, writer, Curious ensemble member Mark Comiskey worked for a time as a bicycle messenger, and Two Wheels Good is his one-person show based on that experience. Comiskey spends no time talking about how he got into the business or recounting the adventures of other messengers. Instead he leaps right into his own head, delivering the stream-of-consciousness chatter of a man who spends too many hours alone riding against the clock and traffic to get a package from point A to point B.

Like James Joyce’s adman Leopold Bloom, who can’t keep his wandering mind off his job (he keeps spotting places around Dublin one could paint an advertisement), Comiskey’s mind buzzes with thoughts about a life spent peddling around the Loop. “I am a straight line,” he muses as he zips along taking a package from 400 S. LaSalle to 430 W. Erie. “Time is an endless series of bricks and buildings,” he says a few blocks later.

Two things keep this highly impressionistic monologue from slipping into incomprehensible abstraction. One is that Comiskey cleverly delivers much of it from the seat of his sturdy bike as he rides round and round the Curious Theatre’s brand-new basement space. (Audience seating has been adjusted so we sit either on the outside or the inside of his orbit.) This inspired staging frees Comiskey from having to describe his biking maneuvers. Instead he just demonstrates them, including an amazing move in which he turns the bike 180 degrees on a dime.

Comiskey’s other trick is that just when he’s lulled his audience into the rhythms of his daily working life, he breaks our trance with a highly fragmented, slow-motion description of his collision with a Honda Civic, an accident that sends Comiskey literally through the windshield and figuratively into some mystical otherworld where he floats through the salt and snow into the arms of a beautiful ice goddess.

For the rest of his story, Comiskey cuts back and forth from the literal to the figurative, leaving it completely up in the air whether the goddess he sees is an angel of death or just a trauma-induced hallucination. Even the seemingly concrete ending raises more questions than it answers. Which ultimately makes Comiskey’s’ tightly structured, finely written story all the more powerful.

Beau O’Reilly’s companion work Spew Police . . . Suffergush Returns, written and performed by O’Reilly, is a much messier story. But that’s only appropriate, since his one-man show is about a much messier guy: a raving (probably homeless) drunk who spends his time wandering the streets of Chicago in a snit. Over the course of this moving monologue we get to know the eccentric workings of his twisted, raging mind, even as we feel his very real loneliness and alienation.

O’Reilly, the writer, deserves some of the praise for the power of this piece. Spew Police contains examples of his evocative beat-poetic prose at its most inspired. At one point he describes the “big Irish German beer-mugging faces” of Chicago’s early settlers.

However, in this show the writer O’Reilly must take a backseat to O’Reilly the performer, who uses the occasion to display his full acting range. I never knew anyone could rage in so many different ways until I saw O’Reilly take what is essentially a nonstop rant, and transform it into a fascinating, constantly varying, from-the-gut verbal portrait of a man lost in perpetual psychic pain. O’Reilly could be performing Shakespeare, Shaw, or Ibsen; he delivers his lines with that kind of conviction. Instead he (and his Curious cohorts) have chosen a different, more independent, certainly more difficult route.

Shows like Two Wheels Good and The Spew Police . . . Suffergush Returns make me glad that they have.