By Michael Miller
With one hundred productions spread over five weeks, I rather doubt that anyone has seen all of the United Solo Festival. After the sessions I previously reported on, I returned for one show I didn’t want to miss, Tim Collins’ On the Outskirts of Everything and Heather Ehlers’ Spin, and later for the final weekend, when I managed to take in yet another show, John Jiler’s Ripe, as well as the United Solo Awards Ceremony. It may sound like an especially wheezy cliché to praise a contemporary institution for carrying on a tradition of the Greeks, who, in religious ritual, presented competitions and awards of many sorts, but there seems something essential in this characteristically Greek custom, that strengthens the artists, the organizers, and their audience, making the muscles spring, the brain ignite, and the blood flow with an electric thrill. Artistic Director Omar Sangare recognizes the importance of the prize-giving and takes the selection process especially seriously, and the competition was strong. Of the six plays I saw, all were excellent, and some showed award-winning qualities, but only one of them won an award, Tim Collins’ On the Outskirts of Everything,for Best Dramatic Script, and that decision seemed bang on to me. At the Awards Ceremony, I was surprised that I had seen so little of the best material and extremely curious to know more of them. I was extremely pleased when the author and performer of the Best One-Woman Show, Longing for Grace (a triple prizewinner, also honored with Best Direction for Austin Pendleton’s work, and Best Makeup for Elle Murphy) allowed me to read her script.
Grace Kiley, Longing for Grace
I was astonished. Here was a work of classic literary quality, a magical power to draw in many different sensibilities in the spectator, as if they were gossamer strands in the gentlest of breezes, and a sense of truth, which leads one into a full and direct experience of the tragic moment and its inexorable consequences. By the tragic moment, I mean the single error, which, once committed, brings heredity and fate together, to the destruction of doer—Agamemnon’s sacrifice of Iphigenia, Oedipus’ killing of his father at the crossroads. In Miss Kiley’s play a young woman of extraordinary beauty, talent, and fame accepts what seems to be a reward for her hard work, an unexpected token of 24 carat success, and a fulfillment of expectations imposed on her by tribal traditions on a scale never dreamed of by her rather limited parents, whose injunction was to marry “a nice, rich Catholic boy.” The particular Catholic boy she married was notably not as rich in cash as he was in glamour and tradition, but really quite boyish in certain other qualities, most notably his sense of humour, which gravitated towards rubber dog turds and whoopie cushions, and his inability to control a petulant, rather vicious temper. Above all, the Catholic boy was a potentate legitimized by the laws of the Church and Napoleonic law, which prevailed in his tiny country, and this ruler, who seems to have convinced his bride that this was at least something of a love match, found it ultimately impossible, even on reflection, to place his wife’s visceral need to create ahead of the conventions of Church and State. Her cheerful acceptance of a marriage proposal made her a prisoner of a seedy palace in a minuscule principality, today primarily recognized as one of the more convenient tax shelters. Euripides would have been fascinated by this story, which is not a myth, although publicists both in Monaco and Hollywood tried to make it one…and eventually they had their way. Her career, her public and private personae, and her marriage became a contemporary myth. Princess Grace was in a way a Medea who couldn’t murder her children, and there was no chariot of the Sun to carry her away. Henry James would wryly curl his lip, if he could have followed the story in the purgatorial newspapers, seeing one of his favorite circumstances played out at almost the very last moment when such an intermingling of greed, vanity, hidebound tradition, and deluded hope could appear to the world as glamourous. At one point in Kiley’s subtle, multivalent narrative Princess Grace has a powder room encounter with the other unhappy princess, Diana, who is crying. Her word to the younger victim?1 “It will only get worse.”
I have observed how difficult it is to tell the story of a renowned public figure, in this case a pop cultural icon. For most, it’s an easy way out, and the results show it. The story and the character are already outlined for you, in a way. Like the photos from which Warhol derived his celebrity icons. But it’s not interesting to tell a story everybody knows, and only bathos and scandal can float such a leaky vessel. Even if the playwright has higher, honest aims, like Terry Teachout in his very moving Satchmo at the Waldorf, the technical problem of laying out the old story is treacherous. Kiley has achieved the necessary depth of identification with the protagonist and her life, so that she unfolds the narrative poetically, proceeding from mood to mood, although her narrative, beginning in the circumstances of her death, is still chronological. The time space of the play occupies the funeral of Princess Grace, as she finds her way through the threshold as an exploration of memories. Her biography, as she tells it, is not a two-dimensional narrative, but a seeking of some path to the world between death and life through her past experiences. It has an urgent direction beyond the material βίος, the life as lived, as Grace’s soul and spirit prepare to make their transition.
Grace Kiley’s Longing for Grace seems to belong to an older, deeper age, with its subtlety, multilayered affect, and its courage to approach very sad, deeply wrenching facts for what they are, not dressing them up with sophomoric irony or cheapening them with modern-day violence. This sophisticated duality lies at its very core, where the tragic moment, which we can feel with the same pulverizing dread we experience in Oedipus Tyrannus, engenders and coexists with the deep sadness of a wasted life. Above all Grace Kiley’s insight into this familiar story—the stuff of sensational spreads in glossy magazines and icky television documentaries—is profound and mature. If this makes the play seem old-fashioned in our age of youth culture, instant gratification, and slickly packaged vaporlife, it is only for the better, because it gives scope to its most potent qualities. Today, everywhere I look I see a solution for every problem or a cure for every illness or addiction—easy ones, too—demanding no more than a check for any price you can afford, from five to five hundred thousand dollars, as if everything that’s done by one or to one can be undone. One might well smile with an ironic twist, throw up one’s hands, and ask, “Whatever became of the tragic sense of life?” Tragedy came into being to honor Dionysus, a newer god of sensual pleasure and intoxication (or “enthusiasm” in its Greek sense) to enhance life, to make life more real. On the other hand, the play is not old-fashioned at all, since it hinges on celebrity, social injustice, the marginalization of women, and the host of familial and conditioned inner drives which can make any of us give up what is most precious.
As rich an experience as the finely pitched language, impeccably managed dramaturgy, and humane insight were in print, I unfortunately couldn’t see Grace Kiley’s performance, about which I heard rave reports.
Among the anonymous audience comments were these:
Kiley’s performance is as impressive in its breadth as it is in its attention to detail. From a mysterious beginning, set in the midst of her own funeral in Monaco, through the carefully orchestrated journey of a life vividly remembered, she captures our attention and never lets go, reliving a lifetime of delight, disappointment and ultimately determination to understand her own foibles and set herself free from the cage her life had become.
Simple sets and costumes enhance the telling of this well crafted story. But it’s the powerful performance at its center that binds the various elements together with a unique alchemy. Kiley brings the experience eloquently to life and sends the audience home with that rarest of gifts, a truly satisfying evening in the theater.
Omar Sangare told me in an e-mail:
In this solo performance, impressively directed by Austin Pendleton, Grace Kiley showed her remarkable talent in the craft of acting. She transformed herself into a figure who has emanated a mythical fascination over the world, creating a character compelling in both her truthfulness and her sophistication. In her performance, Grace Kiley proved how close she is to the character, not only drawn in by the similarity of her name to that of the legendary princess Grace, but through her careful research and persuasive acting style.
Her reputation, in fact, rests on her much-admired work as an actress and teacher of acting and directing at NYU Tisch Kanbar Film & TV, Stella Adler Studio, and Trinity La MaMa Urban Arts Program, as well as independently at The Network. She has played Linda in Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Jane Austen in The Novelist, Kate in Pinter’s Old Times, Yulia in Gorky’s Summerfolk, and Ouisa in Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation, mostly in New York, but also in her native Vermont. I’ll keep a close eye out for her future performances in the hopes of seeing her perform her magnificent play.
John Jiler, Ripe
Death is also a primary theme in John Jiler’s autobiographical play, Ripe, as is parenthood, one’s relations with one’s parents, growing up, and Judaism, or Jewish identity. He and his young son are staying in his parents’ apartment, looking after his bedridden father, who is dying of cancer, and to some extent his mother, who is at her limit dealing with her husband’s condition. The play begins as John calls the local pharmacist to order three diapers of different sizes, one for his son, who should have outgrown them by now, but occasionally has an accident, for his father, who most definitely needs them, and for his mother, who, like the little boy, occasionally has an accident and is particularly fastidious about how she looks and smells. The pharmacy is one of the few old-fashioned drug stores remaining in the city (In fact its real-life model has recently disappeared.), and its owner is an unpleasant holocaust survivor. It is an ordeal for John to talk to him. Jiler conducts this and other telephone conversations one-sidedly, while he delivers both sides of direct conversations himself, as he relates his conversations with his father’s nurse, an even more unpleasant Irish woman, who makes her low opinion of John more than clear. Another dominant voice is that of his son, who explores the physiology of death in some detail, asking the sort of penetrating, if absurd questions small children ask. Later in the play, John gives us a sort of grisly scherzo, when he goes casket-shopping at Campbell’s, assuming the voice of a salesman and the two employees whose duty it is to collect the bodies. Outraged by the cost of their main retail line, he invites insulting treatment by asking to see a pine box. Good old Campbell’s…
As his narrative goes further and further back in time, before his own birth, to the meeting of his Irish Catholic mother and his Jewish father, a flash denizen of the race track, who never let the truth get in the way of what he wanted. He in fact engineered a deception to meet the young woman who became the mildly incontinent lady of the house, that is, the Upper East Side apartment where John grew up. The dying man seemed to have his life together in such a manner that he seemed quite independent of his family, as he carried on his business dealings, visited the track, and pursued his pleasures, some of which included John’s mother, for example, visits to Miami Beach, which she did not particularly appreciate. His father virtually never saw fit to give John any particular support or praise. In fact, when John became a writer and showed him samples of his poetry, his criticism was scathing. At this point we learn that John’s father was himself a writer earlier in life, a pursuit he abandoned for more profitable work as a publicist. John is also disappointed that his father never took him into his religion with a Bar Mitzvah. John’s father was not a religious man. Hence John’s sense of betrayal, which has colored his filial affection with resentments.
The circumstances of his father’s passing become a particular challenge for John, a rite of passage he must negotiate correctly in order to earn the maturity required by this juncture in his life. At this point he is around fifty, the age when we grow in to a certain completeness of soul. As we observe his passage through this ordeal, we also can see it as an ongoing process. Eventually the little boy will have to do this for John.
Here was another script rich in narrative detail and feeling, colorful in language and convincing and sincere. The life-events on which the story is based occurred a decade before the play was written. The time the author took to digest the experience and process it into art allowed him to deal with these personal issues in a mature, resonant way. He is acutely analytical of not only his own thoughts and actions, but of his entire family, including his little boy. He is a bit hard on all of them, mostly on himself. But it is a story of letting go and moving on, and it progresses towards a brighter, if sober, future. Mr. Jiler’s polished, committed performance, he command of various colors of voice and accents, and his keen sense of comedy enlivened an already outstanding play. My personal perspective on the story was all the more engaged because John Jiler’s story is so very similar to my own. And it’s gratifying to see that the Upper East Side is still in the running as a source for theatrical art.
Heather Ehlers, Spin
Heather Ehlers’ Spin is yet another autobiographical play of special persuasiveness and poignance. She traces her development into middle age from her foreign exchange experiences as a randy teen, through childbirth (natural, of course), an extramarital relationship in her early forties, the breakup of the marriage, the breakup of the relationship, finally to a solitary maturity, in which loneliness is relieved by children, especially her relationship with her teenage daughter, who begins the cycle all over again. In this, too, there is the death of an unavailable father, this time through alcoholism and women. The story also resonated with my personal experience, as the not entirely superfluous father at the bedside. It seems amazing that there are people well into their thirties who came into the world “naturally,” more or less.
Ms. Ehlers’ language was colorful, even in the euphemistic sense, and she even gave us some very convincing Danish. The comedy was broad, and very funny. I vividly remember her description and portrayals of the peculiar Danish families she resided with during her high school exchange year. Heather Ehlers is an actress with a great vocal range, both in color and dynamics, almost too much for the somewhat overloud amplification. She has terrific energy, which never flagged over the 90 minutes of vigorous and active miming, all her movements executed with impressive control and expression. If my discussion of the show is somewhat brief, it is not intended to slight the engaging comedy, moving humanity, and polish of this wildly entertaining show.
Tim Collins, On the Outskirts of Everything
The most impressive of the United Solo shows I actually saw was Tim Collins’s On the Outskirts of Everything. In six monologues by six different characters, he created a brilliant, surreal expedition into the terrifying isolation and fragmentation of contemporary life. Few of us have escaped anger management, Google, fast food restaurants, New Age fads, fantasy fiction, male bonding, and horrible stuffed animals. Tim Collins’ intense, whirlwind tour of how they degrade human consciousness to the point where what we have been brought up to regard as sanity, even humanity, is not only out of our reach, but irrelevant, is a work of genius and shows, more than any other solo theater piece I have actually seen, just what the medium can achieve, although Longing for Grace in performance is even more ambitious. This is a forward-looking, advanced work of art, an outstanding representative of the avant-garde in solo theater, entirely focused on contemporary life, transforming the most banal elements of it into abstract entities, nightmarish ones, which exert their pernicious force on our lives and thoughts, day in day out.
Collins’ journey is a kind of passage into the heart of darkness, beginning with an all-male anger management group, with the Dog Whisperer as the leader’s inspiration. His name is David. After this already unpromising and difficult exercise deteriorates into violent communication, which turns out to be the only effective way to get the attention of these court-ordered parolees, Collins moves on to “Tim’s” Mendelssohnian scherzo about Google—a list of common questions people have asked the oracle.
The centerpiece of the play is the patter of Zac, a guy purportedly reconnecting with an old friend over beers, but in fact he’s warming him up in preparation to sell him a life insurance policy. The fellow talks as if he were demented, but, alas, if it be madness, it grants him no access to original thought or language. In his course of his babble he traverses an impressive range of male bonding clichés, definitively proving that maleness as a psychosocial quality or force is long dead and rotted into the cold, cold earth.
You look good, bro. Like, spiritually clean. You seem incredibly happy and at peace with yourself, like you’ve battled some Demon Prince of Inner Emotion and slain him with your Sword of Intense Fiery Manhood, some Robert Bly type-shit, you’ve done it. Seriously, Bro, you’ve got this Mos Def meets Bruce Lee sort of Ninja-Warrior calm. You’re tranquil. Chill. You look like a man who’s got answers. You’ve got information…
I’m not getting queer on you, bro… you just look like a man who Knows. Capital “K,” Knows…[…]
But, I’m talking your inner life. The tranquility. Come on, come on, what kind of Carlos-Castenadian, Jack Kerouacian, Hunter S. Thompsonian, type, Mescaline-Soul Retrieval, Peyote-Milkshake, Chakra-Mindtrip-type, LSD OD, freakin’ Freakout, Jerry Garcia as the Eternal Buddha, Visionary-Vision Quest, Soul Orgasm have you had? Upon what Ultimate Journey hath thou embarked? Bro?
…You’re Presbyterian? Practicing? Oh. Well. Sure. It’s all God, isn’t it?
By now Tim Collins has served us up a bouillabaisse of contemporary idiocies that could stand reasonably erect on its two hind legs beside Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet.
From Zac’s new age machismo, Tim Collins leads us to Daniel, who has “Netflixed” so many movies that he can’t keep them straight. Actually YouTube and all the other good things on the Internet have a place in his repertory as well:
Netflix and Youtube. Facebook. Netflix, Ebay, and Google. Netflix and Ebay and Google and Facebook, and Twitter and Youtube and Itunes and Funnyordie. These are the only things I trust anymore. Everything else is so weird.
Daniel texts constantly while speaking, while his reflections turn to violence and cosmic things.
So, anyway, stabbings, and muggings, and Hitler, it just makes you think, what do the rest of us do? When half the world is killing each other, how do we fight back? Without fighting? And I thought: you know, just: Love. You have to Love. Martin Luther King, Ghandi, Obi Wan Kenobi, Gandalf, they understood the Truth, that love, you know, creates an energy, and if enough people do it, it overflows, like in the Bible, My Cup Got Runneth Over, I mean, the Di Vinci Code, do you know what I mean?
At this point he produces a stuffed monkey that wears a shirt with the sentence “I LOVE MONKEY.” This particular stuffed animal is a self-esteem fetish. “wouldn’t it be nice, if you could, like, love yourself?” But that is impossible, we could only achieve it, if our heads were full of stuffing. “Human beings know too much. We’ve seen too many movies.”
So far the play is as dark as any I have seen. Then Ian takes to a lower, blacker circle. He’s painting the walls of an apartment or house which has been burgled. He suspects the movers. His purpose is to paint it all out:
I thought a few coats of paint would hasten the vanishing.[…] I was worried about the furniture, I was worried about all our stuff in the way, but, it’s gone now, everything’s gone, so I can paint what’s left into one nice big blank, as if there’s never been anything here, at all.
Adam brings the play to an end. He’s gone to the McDonald’s where he used to work to ask Daphne, who runs the register, out for dinner at Burger King or Taco Bell. He has been fired for stealing a block of cheese. “I’ve been obsessed with her for several months, she’s got this—trailer park charm that I find totally disemboweling, in an emotional way.” He enters pondering a funny story about the Nazis: In a tank blown up by the Nazis, a Russian radio operator, his legs blown off, survived two weeks to send out the location of the Germans. He reflects: “That story, right there, reminds me of why I’ve always been a big fan of Pac-Man.” As he reminisces about his experiences working in the restaurant, he continues to ponder the Nazis, the Russians, and Pac-Man.
Pac-Man: eat eat eat eat eat. Run, run, run, run, run. Until he’s eaten. By ghosts. That haunt him… Think about it that way, Pac-Man is kind of deep. …Run! (to customer in front of him, who Adam has startled) Not you…sorry… Eat! (to customer in front of him) Still– not you, sorry. Run-Run-Eat-Eat… Dead…
Daphne replies to his request. Perhaps I should not give it away, but it is not a “yes.” Stunned, he replies, “That’s good.”
And Tim Collins’ play was good, better than good, good enough for Mr. Collins to win the United Solo Award for Best Dramatic Script.
And this and my previous review, which cover in all the six show I saw and one I read, all excellent, and two more than that, offer only a minuscule sample of the hundred solo works presented at United Solo. I can look forward to Bill Bowers’ Beyond Words, which won the male counterpart of Grace Kiley’s prime award, which will be presented at Williams College at the end of January, and On the Outskirts of Everything will be back in New York in the spring, and Longing for Grace as well, both in the Northeast and at international venues.
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.