Extreme Exposure Edited by Jo Bonney (TCG Books, 450 pages, $18.95)
George Jean Nathan once said that critics shouldn't bother denying their prejudices. They should just be up-front about them, explain the experiences that led to them and let readers decide whether they are justly held. In this spirit, I confess my longstanding prejudice against solo performance, which, far from mellowing, has rather been stiffened by years of regular theatergoing. Virtuosic exceptions such as Eric Bogosian, Danny Hoch and John Leguizamo seem to me just that, their rarity proof of the rule of naive self-indulgence and wannabe monumental egotism. In this print-your-own-ticket, post-your-own-website age, too many competent, twentysomething actors discouraged by a year or two of industry auditions get the brilliant idea to jump-start their me-machines with sitcom-shallow autobiographical solo pieces. The result is a glut of banality and fatuousness that cheapens both the theater and the worthy impersonation skills of the performers.
Unlike some other solo-text anthologies that have appeared under the banner of identity politics since this genre exploded a decade or so ago, Extreme Exposure isn't defined by gender, sexuality, ethnicity or theme. It's a collection of scripts by 42 actor-authors from the beginning to the end of the past century?male and female, gay and straight, highbrow and low, high-tech and low-?each accompanied by a short introduction by a writer familiar with the artist's work. The range of information and the quality of research are excellent, with many old texts transcribed from obscure recordings or culled from rare, out-of-print books, and all the texts shrewdly selected to recall the atmosphere and flavor of the often improvisational live performances.
The book's broadly inclusive scope strengthens rather than weakens the splintered agendas of the various artists by placing them in a capacious context no one could argue was parochial. (Indeed, some really have no agenda per se; their focus is on the eternal dramatic question, "How does one live?") Not all were born in the United States, but their careers all centered here, and among the book's most interesting and appealing aspects is its quintessential Americanness: it's a big, unruly admixture of hugely diverse storytelling sensibilities, all rooted in the same mildly contradictory double need for complete independence and public confession.
In the age of the Internet?which has shaded American "independence" off into videophilic "isolation" to create a more perfect public-confession box?this double need takes on a special poignancy. Although most of Bonney's artists, even the hipper, younger ones, tellingly avoid the subject of the cyberworld, the masturbatory, voyeuristic climate of video culture hangs over their every word, and the social circumstance of the theater gives even the most flagrantly self-aggrandizing among them a certain self-sacrificial dignity. Risky honesty is everywhere in this book, and the best of the performers display a quasi-Beckettian relish for the reductio ad absurdum of theatrical spectacle, treating existence onstage, the dilemma of the unaccommodated actor actually caught in a vise and not merely describing it, as the unavoidable Topic behind every topic.
There's no way any review could do descriptive justice to a selection that runs from Beatrice Herford (who performed comic monologue-portraits from 1896 to 1943) and Lord Buckley (a cabaret performer whose act featured a sort of spoken jazz from the 1920s to 1960) through Ruth Draper, Lenny Bruce, Ethyl Eichelberger, Lily Tomlin, Tim Miller, Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Dael Orlandersmith. Some of the older figures were nothing but historical names to me before this book gave them lucid voice and contour. Others, such as Jackie "Moms" Mabley (who refined her black "mammy"-cum-trickster character over half a century) and Brother Theodore (the macabre and apocalyptic Holocaust-survivor-turned-comic-philosopher) I saw on tv as a child in the 1960s and 70s but knew little about them until reading Extreme Exposure.
There are numerous younger artists in the book whose work I haven't seen (particularly those based on the West Coast, such as Anne Galjour, Marga Gomez and Josh Kornbluth). Also, inevitably, several local figures whom I have seen but don't admire nearly as much as Bonney does, even after reading their words and those of their advocates. The great pleasure and value of this book, however, is to make such differences seem like minor issues in light of the precious heritage traced in the bulk of the material.
Wake Up and Smell the Coffee By Eric Bogosian Eric Bogosian, whose solo work Bonney has directed since 1981 (they're a couple), is a fine example of what I said before about the performer caught in a vise. Of course, he's no Poor Theater martyr or body-mutilating Actionist, but I've been following his stage shows since Drinking in America (1986), and in every case what has lodged deepest in my memory are his attitude, energy and voice, not the content of his vignettes, or the personalities of the people he portrays. Bogosian is an outraged soul, indignant at the insanity of this world but too smart to characterize his indignation as righteous or to try to hide what I take to be his natural sarcasm and bitterness. It would be clear that his characters, all male, are rooted in himself even if he and his critics hadn't said so explicitly years ago, and watching him has always been, for me, a bit like eavesdropping on a man screaming at his mother in the mirror. It's as if he starts out, with exquisite control, looking for someone to blame for who he is (in the guise of his characters, that is), then loses respect for that search and ultimately settles for a more complex picture that he's not sure anyone will comprehend. Then that uncertainty, in turn, becomes the source of further indignation that is useful grist for his next vignette or show.
Wake Up and Smell the Coffee, his sixth evening-length solo, deals with many of the same worldly insanities, and takes largely the same approach as his previous pieces. After a brief, jarring prelude in which he screams like a street-brawling moron about being "on top" and "number one" (performed to raunchy, pounding music and annoying strobe lights), he puts on a black jacket over his black jeans and neat, skinny tie and speaks in his "normal," insinuatingly aggressive voice about what will be in the show, absurdly exaggerating its "journey" and how it will improve our lives. Before that gag is even over, he deflates it (as he has before in his intros) with various self-deprecatory comments that he may or may not half-believe ("I can't make you think; I can only make you numb for a while"; your "conformist" lives are "punctuated by only the most lame and insipid diversions, of which this is one"), before launching into a series of acted portraits, beginning with a whiny, pop-psychoanalyzing spectator who complains that "you're very negative."
I can imagine that someone seeing Bogosian for the first time in this show might enjoy him on the level of social content. His compulsively cellphone-calling asshole-businessman on line at the airport who thinks everyone else is an asshole; his Eastern guru preaching that "alienation is simply lack of money; money brings deep and abiding happiness"; an angry, alcoholic father blaming everybody but himself for his ruination; his impression of the devil pleasantly explaining his way of life as a consumer choice in a tv commercial: these are funny enough, in their relative obviousness, primarily because the characters are so sharply drawn. For anyone who's seen Bogosian skewer these same hypocrisies more efficiently before, however, the main pleasure in this show is rather in a single, anomalously ambiguous portrait and in the many segments of direct interaction with the audience.
The portrait is a long fantasy scenario about an ordinary guy (pleasant enough, a little pushy, much like Bogosian), who flirts with a flight attendant on the way to L.A., invites her to a concert, rescues her from the wreckage after the plane goes down in the Rockies and then becomes a minor celebrity due to his heroism. Bogosian happily waits to impose a moral on this story until the end (the guy divorces his wife of 19 years to marry the fantasy babe), leaving the mind free the rest of the time to make less predictable connections. In the same relatively humble spirit (which seems to acknowledge briefly that real recognition and understanding can be a bit more drawn out than simply waking up and smelling the coffee), the direct addresses to the audience?the show's best material?are devoted to deflecting any mistaken impression that he is, or thinks he is, a hero-savior or a courageous rebel. Referring snidely to the audience as a bunch of baby birds with their mouths open, he says near the end: "I got news for you, I'm all outta worms today... We haven't gone anywhere. I'm just a bullshit slinger from a long line of bullshit slingers." False humility or not, that's the bullshit some of us came to see.
Jane Street Theater, 113 Jane St. (betw. Washington St. & West Side Hwy.), 239-6200, through July 16.