At a recent press event during the Venice Film Festival, actor George Clooney was being interviewed about his upcoming film, The Men Who Stare At Goats, when a man unexpectedly began to disrobe. "I am gay, George. Take me, choose me, George, please," he begged. "May I kiss you just once?"
Always a good sport, Clooney responded "It's hard when you take a big chance and it doesn't really work."
Monologists take note: Having a great story to tell is not the same thing as being a great storyteller.
Because most of the acts at the 2009 San Francisco Fringe Festival are scheduled to last between 50-60 minutes, audiences can catch three different performances over the course of an evening. Having an opportunity to watch three different shows in rapid succession also means that a member of the Fringe audience can watch three different artists walk a dramatic tightrope as they try to engage an onlooker's attention based on:
- Having a unique story to tell.
- Having some quotient of personal magnetism.
- Using a variety of props and costumes.
- Trusting in one's strength as a solo performer.
But is a strong personal narrative all you need to create a show? Is a performer best served by relating tales from his own life or better suited to sharing a fictional narrative during which he can hide behind a costume? Does a monologist possess the kind of keen theatrical instincts and performing chops which will electrify an audience?
Some fare better than others for simple but obvious reasons.
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First up at bat on Thursday night was Ian Woodall, the leader of the first South African Mount Everest expedition, whose narrative, The Tao of Everest, details a series of daredevil challenges to which few, if any, in the audience could ever rise. According to the promotional blurb:
"While attempting Everest, Ian stopped just below the summit to help a dying American friend. Her first words were, "Don't leave me." Yet Ian had to leave her for the safety of his own team. Nine years later, he returned to bury his friend. After wrapping her in the Stars and Stripes, he slid her gently down the North Face to join her husband lying somewhere below. Triumph, tragedy, storms, and summits. An emotional and uplifting storytelling experience to the top of the world!"
Although Woodall has one helluva story to tell, some if it is obviously filtered through the lens of a macho, ex-military mentality. It's also interesting, upon viewing Wikipedia's page about Woodall, to discover some of the "controversy" surrounding his 1996 expedition to Mount Everest.
What matters most are his descriptions of subsequent trips to the summit and the tragedy witnessed by Woodall, the woman who eventually became his wife (Cathy O'Dowd), and one of his loyal guides (Phuri Sherpa) when a beloved colleague of theirs. Francys (Frankie) Arsentiev -- the first American woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest without the assistance of bottled oxygen -- succumbed to the elements after her husband, Sergei, had fallen to his death. For several years, Frankie's frozen body (there is no decomposition at that elevation) went on to become a popular landmark for other climbers making their way to the summit.
Woodall's presentation is immensely aided by a slide show which shows the rarified beauty of the Himalayas as well as the treacherous weather conditions (you can see some incredible photos from the 1996 expedition here). His narrative obviously comes from a very deep and intimate place in his heart (one of exhilarating achievement, astonishing physical struggles, and a crushing personal loss).
While Woodall may not be a gifted performer (the constant fluttering of his hands becomes a bit tedious), his lecture is compelling, inspiring, and leaves one with a genuine sense of admiration for his accomplishments. It is the kind of armchair adventure best experienced from the reassuring comfort of a warm and cozy perch.
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Zoe Sheli Sameth's monologue, Theater of the Battle, fared less well. Although Sameth's narrative involves less physical heroism than Woodall's, it is nonetheless filled with tremendous personal and political conflict. More than 21 years ago, as a rather naive American studying abroad in Sri Lanka, she was present at the eruption of the civil war between the Sinhalese community (which forms the majority of the population) and the Tamils, who form the largest ethnic minority.
During the past year, Sameth has been working with David Ford to bring her new monologue to fruition. His influence can easily be seen in her writing and acting as she tries to impersonate the various people she met on the beaches of Sri Lanka (as well as in its largest city, Colombo).
From crippled beggars to scared policemen, from a young Sinhalese woman who likes to tickle Sameth to a lecherous elderly host (who is the uncle of one of her close friends), she relates the confusing change in her surroundings from a tropical paradise to an environment of deadly civil unrest where brutal mobs beat and kill strangers in a manner reminiscent of the pogroms suffered by Sameth's ancestors in Eastern Europe.
When Sameth connects with her material's inner truths and finds her narrative's dramatic rhythm, she'll have a much stronger act to present to the public (there's plenty of powerful material for her to work with). Unfortunately, I did not find Sameth to be a particularly persuasive or interesting performer. This may well have been because the festival's opening night was also the first time she had performed her act before a live audience. Time and repetition may provide the dramatic glue needed to turn this act around.
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Any doubts I had about which of the three monologists was a genuine performance artist were quickly erased as I witnessed Larissa Garcia's astonishing tour de force entitled A (Bearded) Lady. Beautifully written by Billie Cox, this is a remarkable piece of solo theater that definitely should not be missed. The blurb for the show states that:
"After more than a century on the carnival circuit, the Bearded Lady comes to the San Francisco Fringe to perform what may be her final show. Now with the privilege of death, in a tell-all tale she once again gives her audience fright and delight. Step up, step up, ladies and gentleman, and see for yourself as A (Bearded) Lady pays tribute to the carnival life, its deviance, and its dignity."
Photo by: Brian Pawlowski
Written and co-directed by Billie Cox, A (Bearded) Lady is what performance art is all about. Larisssa Garcia gets wheeled onto the stage on a hand truck, looking for all intents and purposes like an attraction from a wax museum. Once she springs to life, however, all hell breaks loose as Garcia delivers a bravura, over-the-top performance.
A (Bearded) Lady deftly contrasts the pain and anguish of being scorned by everyone in your village versus being celebrated and revered for being unique. It slyly asks whether the safety of conformity is worth sacrificing the thrill of nonconformity -- whether a life of hiding and repression is really worth living when compared to a life of joy and ecstasy. The show speaks directly to the souls of gay men, lesbians, minorities, and anyone else who has been rejected and/or vilified for being "different."
A triumphant 50 minutes of exhilarating theatre, this is the kind of gripping drama one hopes to find at fringe festivals (or, for that matter, on any stage). It is at once engaging, confrontational, inspired, and demented -- a freak's show about the people who inhabit a carnival's freak show. It is a brash, brazen, and boisterous scherzo wrapped up in a brilliant and magical piece of theatre.
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It was obvious what set one of these performers head and shoulders above the others. Each had a strong personal narrative to tell -- whether it involved an incredibly arduous physical trek or the eruption of political unrest, whether it told the history of a great personal loss or described finding one's salvation in the most bizarre lifestyle imaginable.
Did the difference lie in the fact that two of the narratives were based on experiences that had happened to the performers themselves while the third was an obvious piece of fiction? Not in the least.
The critical difference is that, unlike Ian Woodall or Zoe Sheli Sameth, Larissa Garcia is the real thing: an unmistakable stage animal. And therein lies a prickly question:
At what point does someone stop painting by numbers and graduate to the ranks of such inspired world-class performance artists as Dan Hoyle, Ann Randolph, Don Reed, and Charlie Varon? Because when an audience encounters the real thing, they're going to know the difference.