Cathleen Schandelmeier

at Cafe Voltaire, through October 15

Written and performed by Cathleen Schandelmeier, Mmm . . . Tattoo Screams of Love is overlong, brave, and outrageous. One moment it’s heartbreakingly honest and the next, pure folly. It’s part of that school advocating that performers pour out their troubles and call it art; whether it’s good theater or not rarely seems the point. More important is that the performer gets to spend an hour abusing, aggrandizing, or atoning for herself in front of an audience. And the Cafe Voltaire basement doesn’t cost as much as analysis.

Even when they’re not clearly autobiographical, one-person shows are tricky. I’ve never had much appreciation for pieces whose sole function seems to be letting the artist “work through” her problems. Mmm . . . Tattoo Screams of Love isn’t strongly crafted enough to alter that opinion entirely, but it is the most absorbing self-revelatory monologue I’ve ever seen, at once fascinating and disconcerting.

Fascinating because Schandelmeier has a real gift for dialogue, and the passages in which she relives conversations between herself and her sociopathic actor boyfriend ring with authenticity and wit. Far from portraying herself as a martyr, she makes it clear that her relationship with this goon depended on her own blindly neurotic complicity. Fascinating because she shares actual dog-eared valentines and breakup notes that have obviously been stashed in a shoe box somewhere for quite a while, which has all the appeal of reading someone’s private letters. Fascinating because she shows us a fuzzy snapshot of herself hugely pregnant with her ex-boyfriend’s baby during a baby shower. And fascinating because she plays an audiotape made on the day six years ago when she was close to delivery and went to visit the baby’s father to ask if he’d like to help her through labor.

That tape is the real thing: you can hear the traffic, the radio, the tears in Schandelmeier’s voice as she prepares to confront the man–and meanwhile the real Schandelmeier sits before us calmly, holding the tape recorder out as though it were a serene sacrifice to the audience. Suddenly we are true voyeurs, peering into something a little too private, feeling the same discomfort as when a stranger willingly reveals her psychic wounds. You wonder what you’re supposed to do. You have the urge to stand up and say, “Why are you telling me this? I don’t know you.” But at the same time there’s the urge to hear it all, the same urge that makes drivers slow down when going past a particularly gory traffic accident.

That urge to hear all is satisfied when Schandelmeier relates her actions that day six years ago, culminating in her leap, nine months pregnant and furious, from the boyfriend’s third-floor balcony. This is the truly disconcerting part. Is Schandelmeier really going to relive the death of her baby twice a week for six weeks onstage? Why? For our entertainment? It’s not entertaining, it’s too damn painful, too real. Her own catharsis? That’s not what theater is for, the performer’s catharsis. In good theater, catharsis is reserved for the audience members. The strongest reaction Schandelmeier elicits is worry for her health and state of mind, reducing the audience to the status of a support group. Her voice is shot by the end of the piece, and I was afraid at one point that she was going to fall apart completely.

“I don’t want any sympathy,” she snaps, pointing at the audience, glaring. And I believe her. So what does she want? “I want to let you know that good things can out come of bad situations,” she explains, showing us a picture of her second child, a son born three years after the tragedy. That’s a noble aim, but I’m not sure I want Schandelmeier to go through all the pain just to assure me that everything’s going to be all right.

I imagine that what she really wants to do is tell her story. And with some trimming, Mmm . . . Tattoo Screams of Love could make a very solid short story; some of the detail in this monologue is exquisite. When the paramedics attempt to cut her clothes off after her fall, she resists, reluctant to do any damage to “a 25-dollar nursing bra,” a practical consideration made poignant by the suspicion that she’ll have no use for it.

But Schandelmeier is no actress. Clearly uncomfortable onstage, suffering from nerves and pushing hard, she often sabotages her own work with some of the tics common to amateur actors. Her head bobs constantly, her arms are stiff, and she stumbles through occasional memory lapses. Schandelmeier is at her best when she stops trying to act and delivers her monologue as quietly and honestly as possible.

Then, it’s almost too raw to watch. Perhaps her story would go down easier, and be just as powerful, if it were simply put on the page instead of the stage.