James Grigsby, Sharon Evans, Carmela Rago


Wit was the instrument by which these three gifted performers, whose styles are very different, transformed subjective revelation into public presentation in this program of three disparate works. Sharon Evans’ character recitation seemed autobiographical, while Carmela Rago’s protagonist was invented but tied to the artist’s zany charm. Only James Grigsby was more distanced in.his impersonation of performers. If the revelation of emotion was the primary agenda, a delicate balance of narrative performance and acting provided the structural framework of the three works—Grigsby’s Mummenkleid, Evans’ Wild things, wild games, and Rago’s Living in the Midwest. The critical frame that binds these individuals may have been arbitary, but they were brought together as three of Chicago’s best performance artists. Grigsby and especially Rago, who have toured together as “A Couple from Chicago,” are able comedians, and Rago’s character Carla Bulgari is a not-too-distant cousin of Michael Smith’s endearingly sloppy Mike.

A princess in pink pj’s, Bulgari told her tale of woe from a rumpled throne of a bed which she supposedly hadn’t left since being abandoned by her husband a month before. In a cluttered setting accessorized with soda cans and junk food, highlighting her entrapment, she was a cross between the heroines of Jean Rhys stories and those on “Search for Tomorrow.” Her only contacts with the world beyond her bedroom were the telephone she answered and the TV she watched. Recounting the loss of her husband, David, in a stream-of-consciousness monologue, and putting off her mother’s probing questions, Bulgari was an adorable victim, a leg-and-hand model whose profession underscored the fact that she was valuable only in fragmentation. Rago’s tone was plaintive but not whining; her depiction of stereotypes and victimization was touching, if slightly dated. Carla existed to be protected and we felt for her, even though she was limited and, let’s face it, dumb. The only problem was that there was no problem. It was unclear to me how Rago saw her role or actually felt about her narrative alter ego. I am not suggesting the injection of large doses of feminism into the intentionally delicate fabric of this sustained, ambitious monologue. But Rago’s child-woman, whom she portrayed as a product of a very specific Midwest ethnic environment, did not really seem to be a projection of the artist. Rago seduced her audience (she’s been compared to Gracie Allen) so that one laughed at her and even with her, but one couldn’t feel deep compassion. A stereotypical feminine strategy is to entrap people by working on their sympathy, and I felt a little as if I’d been worked on that way after Living in the Midwest. In the finale, the noise of a bomb in the background was a flourish whose scale was disproportionate with the rest of the piece, and a clue that resolution lay beyond its narrative capacities. Although there had been earlier references to bombs falling in marriages, the explosion went off right after Carla received a letter from her husband, admitted her abandonment, turned off her TV, and decided to leave her bedroom for a return engagement with the world.

Possessed and then dispossessed like Carla, Evan’s woman-child was haunted by a shadow and a toy deer, figures who came to life as a snazzy young man in a hat and an actress with antlers. If this sounds saccharine, it wasn’t—Evans is a solid actress—nor was it exactly juvenile, although Evans’ portrayal had an intentionally childlike tone and affect. This mood was reinforced by the title’s associations with Maurice Sendak’s fable Where the Wild Things Are. Evans first appeared sitting on a trunk, knees akimbo, like Lily Tomlin’s Little Edith. The other performers represented and enacted memories, or emotional baggage. Narrating a childhood recollection of her father’s bringing home a dead deer, her imitation of the drooping corpse with its lolling tongue was terrific, as was her knowing comparison of cubism with the white-wrapped packages of venison for the freezer. For Evans, who is also a painter, the crux of the matter is the life-and-art quandary, how to reconcile her wish for a more “real” life with her idea that salvation should come from symbolism. Would that it could. Not liking this performance seems mean-spirited, like not crying at the forest-fire scene in Bambi, yet I kept wishing for a bit more dramatic distance and a bit less personal charm.

Strutting around the black stage to a New Wave-ish audio tape whose rhythm was based on his heartbeat, Grigsby had all the panache of Robert Preston’s Music Man and the most astonishing collection of plaid clothes I’ve ever seen. Even his underwear and socks were plaid, and the dominance of the pattern transformed wardrobe into symbol. Mummenkleid was derived from Grigsby’s fascination with a Philadelphia organization called the Mummers, who wear outrageous costumes, march with banjos, and even have a museum. Accumulating bits of narrative, Grigsby progressed from impersonating a revival-style minister to reading out absurdly pathetic personal ads, and finally to a carnival like sales pitch for magic rocks. Abrupt switches from humor to pathos, syncopated by sections of musical strutting inspired by Mary Wigman, culminated in a recounting of a horrid dream of an open lesion. Mummenkleid ended when the artist effected an almost magical transfer of a stage-makeup plaid pattern from his leg to his face. Suddenly the plaid conveyed associations less of Pinky Lee than of the greasepaint of Pagliacci.

Engaging as all three performers were, their accomplishment and theatrical protocol masked in the context of entertainment the domestic betrayal, childhood trauma, and nightmare their works were about. It is tempting to view these artists as sad clowns, whose refined performances merely represented rather than exposing any raw nerves.

Judith Russi Kirshner