at the International Performance Studio

Julie Goell arrives with surprisingly varied credits. She has trained overseas in the technique of commedia dell’ arte, a 16th-century Italian form dating back to Plautus and forward as far as the Marx Brothers and, more recently, the Flying Karamazov Brothers. She has performed with La Compagnia I Gesti (literally, the “gesture troops”), the Swiss vaudeville circus Schaubude (“Showbooth”), and the internationally acclaimed Mummenschanz performance company. She has also been a vocalist at numerous jazz festivals and recorded for Polygram. And being married to Avner Eisenberg (better known to Chicago audiences as Avner the Eccentric) is, one assumes, an inevitable influence on her artistic vision. Taking all this into account, plus the knowledge that it’s rare for any two commedia dell’ arte performers to agree on the precise nature of their craft, and the reputation of the International Performance Studio, known for booking somewhat enigmatic entertainment, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Woman in a Suitcase.

I’m still not sure what to call whatever it is Goell does, except to say that her one-woman show blends all of the above into something funny, engaging, and–most important–easily understandable. The woman of the title is an adventuresome young lady based, says Goell, on the Eloise character of Kay Thompson’s stories. She ventures from her humble home (and a suitcase, even one with a sunshiny window painted on the inside of the lid, is certainly humble) somewhere in eastern Europe to the United States for the purpose of attending a recital at Carnegie Hall in New York City.

Her voyage takes her through customs onto a luxury airliner featuring an unflappable pilot, a bubbly stewardess, and two films for the on-flight amusement of the passengers: War for War’s Sake and Lost Beauty Secrets of the New Reunified Euro-Woman, which offers instructions on the manufacture of facial creams from organic foodstuffs. When mechanical problems force the plane to turn back, the undaunted wayfarer parachutes into the Atlantic, braving sharks, doldrums, and tidal waves until her lifeboat lands on Ellis Island. From there she rides the “dog bus” to Port Authority, and after several futile attempts to secure directions to Carnegie Hall from motley New Yorkers, manages to subway to the theater, where she finds herself seated in a balcony so distant from the stage that “the performers all look like puppets.” She enjoys the concert she has traveled so far to hear anyway.

Goell portrays all the characters in this complicated tale, including the casts of both movies shown on the airplane–at times, she even plays the role of the airplane itself. She also operates the puppets who make up the concert personnel, taking them from a wooden case–the “box office,” she explains. These include a chorus of red roses singing the “Habanera” from Carmen and two paper cups singing the drinking song from La traviata. Finally there’s that old veteran of commedia himself, Punchinello (played here by a Bunraku-style marionette), who after grunting and scratching his chest in characteristic curmudgeonly manner delivers an abbreviated rendition of the “Di quell’amor” aria from La traviata. This drew a spontaneous round of applause from the audience, in appreciation of which the puppet took several bows. Of course, Goell sings all of the puppets’ operatic repertoire. She also double-talks in as many as seven languages at once (and uses the same technique of elision to approximate the techno-babble of the airline pilot and attendant) while retaining her own character’s original accents, pronouncing “Times Square” as “Tee-mess Koo-wary.”

Her suitcase abode is also transformed in the course of the story, from Home Sweet Home to an airline seat to a life raft to a theater loge to the stage of Carnegie Hall. Goell uses a minimum of props: a teacup and saucer, a pillow, an empty coffee can, a whisk broom, a few scarves, one of which constitutes a dressier change of clothes for concerts. “Do I look all right?” she asks us after draping a pink shawl around herself–and by that time we’ve become so accustomed to the visual synecdoche that a single accessory does change her whole appearance, and we find ourselves nodding enthusiastically in response.

It is testimony to Goell’s skill as a performer that she makes all this look so easy. In fact, one must be doubly proficient at a thing in order to parody it (the late Danny Kaye, probably one of the greatest polyglot motor mouths in the history of comedy, spoke 32 languages fluently). For an illusion to be convincing, there must be a consistent attention to the smallest details: watching Goell ride an imaginary subway, I was aware that many less exacting actors would have been content to merely mime the jiggling motion of the train, ignoring the fact that it sometimes turns corners and accelerates abruptly. Thought processes must be meticulously externalized: note the sequential progression when Goell draws a clothesline from her portmanteau home and, having nowhere to tie the other end, fastens it to herself, only to be confronted with the difficulty of retrieving her book and teacup while keeping the clothesline taut and the clothes drying on it from falling. No, this sort of thing is not easy, and on opening night Goell slipped occasionally, but recovered so quickly–upon accidentally making the wrong character face, she uttered a frank “Oops!” and immediately adopted the correct face–that we chuckled at the error without ever losing the train of the narrative or the magic of the universe in which it takes place.

It is this spontaneity, I think, that reflects most accurately the spirit of commedia as I understand it–the willingness to acknowledge the artifice of the performance situation and to include the spectators in the whole fantasy-building process. Children respond to this sense of play readily, and though Woman in a Suitcase could not properly be called entertainment for children, the bare hour-long running time would not be excessive for older youngsters–including those adults who have not lost their imaginations and their ability to delight in the creation, from nothing, of so many wonderful somethings.