The Third United Solo Theater Festival at Theatre Row off Time Square: a Chef, Self-Help Sleazoids, and a Spirited Gal from Texas

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Molly Montgomery, author and star of "Snakes I Have Known"

Molly Montgomery, author and star of “Snakes I Have Known”

October and November are now firmly established as solo theater season in New York. United Solo, now in its third year, has grown by one third—to over 100 performances over a five-week period, from October 11 to November 18, 2012. Artistic Director Omar Sangare has been one of the leaders in solo theater for many years, not only in his native Poland, but in the US, where he has lived and worked since 2005, and he has attracted a stream of applications from solo practitioners all around the world, making United Solo the largest and best event of its kind.

Your problem is only to navigate the impressive list of attractions. You will see familiar names, but mostly new names—the names of young talents launching their careers…and there is nothing more gratifying than seeing extraordinary talent when it’s fresh.

I suggest three ways to crack the code:

1. Find a subject that interests, excites or maddens you and go for it. I saw there was a Medea play, “Medea’s Got Some Issues” (Nov. 4 at 4:00pm. From Spain: written by Emilio Williams, acted by Ana Asensio), . I’m working on a Medea adaptation myself, so anything Medea grabs me. Then there’s “Hebrew School Horror,” which is about a well-educated young woman who can’t find a job in LA beyond teaching Hebrew school and finds herself in a snake pit of the brattiest, most spoiled kids Southern California. I’m not Jewish, so neither my kids nor I have been to Hebrew School, but one of them did attend Trevor Day School, which must be almost as rich in spoiled, bratty kids of all faiths. “Vonnegut, Vonnegut” — Vonnegut is hard to resist, and I know the work of the performer, Glen Williamson, who is a deeply perceptive, stylish, and affecting actor. There are other writers—Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Shelley, Oscar Wilde, and Franz Kafka—and performing artists—Elizabeth Taylor, Laura Nyro, and yes, Charlie Chaplin. (Go see the other Charlie Chaplin show on Broadway! I mean this one.) There are places you may know or know of—the Bronx, Shackleton’s Antarctica, a Nazi concentration camp in Poland, Texas, Moscow, Odessa, Botswana, as well as Broadway itself. The solo artists themselves come from all over the the Americas, as well as Africa and Europe. There are animals, mostly of a scaly or otherwise unappealing kind: frogs, caterpillars, and snakes. Subjects include fame, sex, alcoholism, the Holocaust, and cancer, among many others. Take your pick.

2. Look at the thumbnails on the United Solo website. See one you like? Go for it.

3. Turn up at random. Do you find yourself on Broadway and 42nd Street around 2, 4, 6, 7:30, or 9 pm with time on your hands? Drop in at Theater Row and take your chances, although you may find that the show’s sold out. If that happens, there are a good many restaurants around there that are decent enough or better, where you can indulge yourself and wait for the next show.

One performance I can especially recommend is Tim Collins’ “On the Outskirts of Everything.” (Thu., Nov. 8 at 9:00pm) A few years ago Tim participated in Dialogue One, the prototype of United Solo held at Williams College, where Artistic Director Omar Sangare is a professor. His play was awarded the first prize, and it was deeply perceptive and finely crafted. Other gifted veterans of Dialogue One are Ilya Khodosh and Donald Molosi.

I have seen only three of them so far, using the random method, and they were all excellent.

First, Mary Ann Walsh performed “Cradle to Gravy: a Cook, a Wife, a Death & Two Sisters” by Dianne Bilyak. This story of the opposing centrifugal and bonding effects of congenital illness and alcoholism proved absorbing and moving. If, like an Al-Anon narrative, it had its repetitious moments, it lost little of its humor and power. In it, a daughter tells her life story—to date—which was conditioned largely by the unavailability of her alcoholic father. As the play proceeds, we learn that his profession as a chef played a role in it, and at the end, when colleagues, friends, and enemies appear for his funeral, we learn that he was an outstanding chef. The most grievous fault in this play was an unconvincing recipe for roux gravy. No cook worth his salt would make it that way!

Next came “SuperHappyMelancholyexpialidocious,” a stranger-than-fiction satire about the war on thought, as described in the program, written and performed by Seth Lepore of Northampton, Massachusetts. This is a ferocious, vividly-imagined satire on the self-help industry. Within the slender space of an hour Mr. Lepore takes on Oprah, the megachurches, and a flock of other spiritual motivators and healers.

Yes…well…it’s 2012, and humanity is undergoing a radical transformation in its very being, whether it’s the Mayan calendar or the Rapture. Educated people who ought to know better are fingering beads, dancing in circles in earth rituals, chanting, and feeling each other over. It’s not a pretty sight. What ever happened to the tragic sense of life? Seth Lepore proved a well-informed guide to these sorry phenomena, and a brilliantly imaginative one, both as a satirical writer, writing on thorough research, and as an actor, who preaches, cajoles, wheedles, rhetoricizes, and slimes his way through the standard repertory of self-help. On the way he gesticulates, dances, poses, and—of course—masturbates with spirit and aplomb. He does not stand on his head, but he does make pizza.

Once people gave up making material goods in the US, they seemed to enter a world of make-believe. People who can’t find jobs become career counsellors or marketing consultants. People who can’t get their novel published become book doctors. People who can’t do anything become artists of some sort or spiritual leaders. Narcissism masquerades as love, vapidity as artistic talent. While many are in this for the money, many others are not. They genuinely believe that they have found a truth or a method that will do St. Jude’s work and bring honor and gratitude in return, if not dollars. In fact, some of these gurus actually help people to solve problems and move ahead in life, while others enable glassy eyes and blissful smiles. The power of Seth Lepore’s performance comes from his actual experience with these initiatives. He is not a self-proclaimed exposer of the self-help movement, and there are no cheap shots in his work. In the spiritual and intellectual explorations of his youth he has tried many of these methods, and, finding them ineffectual or totally empty, arrived at a healthy agnosticism.

“SuperHappyMelancholyexpialidocious” is the second part of a trilogy on “the underbelly of the self-help movement,” as he calls it. The title of the first was “Losing My Religion.” The third will be revealed. Seriously, Seth Lepore is working with contemporary fallacies—an addiction to simplistic answers arising from fear, or laziness, or God knows what—and seeking something more sophisticated, which avoids the ridiculous and attempts to foster a genuine dialogue that involves the intellect and discernment, as well as “enthusiasm.”

The last show I saw this past weekend, and the last before United Solo shut down before the arrival of Sandy and my departure from New York, was Molly Montgomery‘s “Snakes I Have Known,” a coming-of-age story set on a sprawling Texas ranch—the family compound not of a rancher, but of a prominent physician, his wife, children, and the previous generation, who acquired the land, not by ranching, but by a brilliant and extremely useful invention, as well as a great deal of hard work and doing without. By now, they have travelled, they value the arts, the women of the family wear the top designers (and well, I’ll bet), the alcoholics tipple the best chardonnay, New York is as much on their map as Dallas. But all that comes later in the show. We enter Molly’s world when she is nine and, on her first hunting trip with the family menfolk, becomes a dragonslayer, only to be rewarded with her father’s wicked grin and the rules of hunting: “Yuh eat what yuh kill.” The rest unfolds chronologically, until the latter quarter or so of the performance, when memories and backstory take hold—and most powerfully.

Molly Montgomery has taken on one of the most difficult jobs in theater or in any of the narrative arts, creating a story about people who are essentially good, decent people—innocent of any morally repellant scandals, but not immune to their share of insanity and dipsomania, which are benevolently tolerated and supported within family circles. There are no gimmicky clichés in the story, that is, deaths or crimes caused by moral blindness or vice, or any neurotic demonizing of parents and other family members, no sexual abuse, no rank neglect. These Texans enjoy their wealth, observe charitable generosity, teach their children sound values, speak the local dialect, and enjoy a good prank, especially at the expense of people they either find infra dig. or love very much.

Even more dangerously, Ms. Montgomery works with what I assume is autobiographical material and succeeds in making it seem entirely convincing and sincere. Last year, I was severely critical of Jon Robin Baitz’s early play, Three Hotels, which he wrote at a somewhat more advanced age than Montgomery’s, painting a harshly condemnatory picture of his father’s activities as an executive at a multinational corporation. Deserved or not, Baitz’s message failed to ring true, and in a most aggravating way. By contrast Montgomery’s rich, multilevelled character study of a family’s three generations was heartfelt, humane, deeply moving—and very funny. Much of the play consisted of ture-to-life situations, directly and vividly recounted, and sometimes heightened a bit into the fanciful. These eventually bled into wonderful fantastic scenes of a Márquezian quality. Within its brief 75 minutes, the play is big and generous, just like its characters. It really contains a novel’s worth of detail, narrative, and color. Judging by what the author said about her editing process, we might well have been there for the time it takes for Götterdämmerung to play out. The color of her language, the engaging detail of the narrative, the perception of her character studies were all on the highest level, without being intellectual or rarified. In fact everything was within the accessible boundaries of popular entertainment, if more precise and challenging in its frankness. Montgomery said that her aim was to make people laugh and cry in the right proportions. What more can a playwright aspire to? And Molly Montgomery succeeded on a big Texan scale, with genius.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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