THE VALERIE OF NOW and SWACKO IN AMERICA, at the Performance Loft. In some ways these two solo performances are the kind that every theater festival should feature: raw, bold, and flawed. But it’s anyone’s guess what two white performers playing to an all-white house (at least on the night I attended) have to do with InterFest 2000’s attempt to address issues of racial and ethnic diversity.

In The Valerie of Now, a 15-minute monologue written by Peter Hedges of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape fame, a precocious 14-year-old girl gets her first period while awaiting her guests’ arrival for her birthday party. Feeling dread and repulsion, she dreams up more and more elaborate fantasies to bolster her flagging self-esteem. Her mother, she imagines, will be borrowing her bra now that she’s a woman–that is, right after the president calls to congratulate her.

The piece proceeds by fits and starts and is way too quirky to communicate any real psychological depth. But Miriam Lewis performs it with extraordinary emotional dexterity, demonstrating more range in her first minute onstage than most actors do during a full-length play, darting back and forth between mature hysterics and childlike silliness without making either feel forced. But she seemed to give up halfway through, perhaps because she had an audience of five, losing her mercurial edge and becoming mannered. Once Lewis has developed the chops to give the same performance for 5 or 500, she’ll be a major player in Chicago theater.

In Swacko in America Ryan Anglin performs seven largely unrelated monologues by various characters: an egomaniacal inspirational speaker, a Hollywood actor trapped in a James Cameron epic in Siberia who orders booze and hookers from his LA agent, a drunken, miserable wannabe stand-up comic who tries out his off-color routine at the Christian Children’s Fun Night.

Anglin is an engaging performer, though his tendency to trip over his words often impedes the momentum. But while his characters are well-defined, he hasn’t yet learned to write scenes for them, instead creating predicaments that rarely evolve and thus leave his characters to simply reiterate their problems.

–Justin Hayford