In an 1896 review of monologuist Beatrice Herford, a critic declared, “You see, we have here the drama reduced to its simplest expression.” The stuff of a solo show: A single actor, typically on a bare stage, with only scraps of costumes, props, or lighting effects—indeed, theater is rarely more basic. Or more complex. The solo show can embrace numberless characters or only one; it can include stark confessions or fanciful confections; it can contain song, dance, prose, spoken word, rant; and one actor all alone can summon a host of intellectual and emotional audience responses.
Introducing the anthology of solo texts Extreme Exposure, director Jo Bonney recalled arriving in New York in 1979 and seeing “a kind of idiosyncratic, boundary-breaking solo performance. Not stand-up comedy, not cabaret, not one-character plays, not lecture or reading or poetry— although bits and pieces of all of these were in there somewhere.” Solo performance flourished here for at least two decades after Bonney’s arrival, each year minting, it seemed, another star. A few straight white men made the scene, but they were outnumbered by women, queers, blacks, Jews, Asians, Nuyoricans—Laurie Anderson, Anna Deavere Smith, John Leguizamo, David Cale, each of the “NEA Four,” etc. Those who may have felt stifled or suppressed suddenly had an entire stage on which they could make themselves heard, and an audience willing to listen. (Even straights like Spalding Gray and Eric Bogosian positioned themselves as on the social periphery, rendered liminal by their unsocial anxieties and desires.)
However, with the notable exception of Sarah Jones, the ’00s have produced few new talents. Perhaps that owes to the continued careers of many of the artists mentioned above—even in a town with as many stages as New York, theaters only want to give so many slots to one-person shows. A rosy reading might suggest we’ve made sufficient social progress that the marginalized have other forms of expression—popular music, the Internet. A more jaded interpretation: Despite the title of the current Spalding Gray tribute, we’ve run out of one-person stories left to tell.
The producers of the Solonova Arts Festival disagree, though based on my attendance, they don’t offer the most convincing contrarian arguments. The ongoing three-week festival at P.S.122 includes shows by 12 solo musicians, dancers, spoken word–ers, and actors, as well as late-night cabarets at Mo Pitkin’s House of Satisfaction. A recent Saturday featured four separate performances, all by women. While each proved tolerable, only one made a case for the distinct joys of the solo genre.
In Dear Dad, Confessions of Gogo, a mini-dressed Monica West discusses the daddies in her life, admitting, “Growing up, God and my father were one in the same.” With her strawberry-blond bob, space-age frock, and titular white boots, West cuts a striking figure—which she soon undercuts with a helium-infused stage voice and desultory script, written with David Baron. Childhood reminiscences, musings about cleanliness, and a brief routine in which she plays a Soviet spy are each fine, but fail to coalesce. Nor do her cute songs and dances inform her narrative. For a girl who claims she likes to wash herself with Mountain Spring Tide with Bleach Alternative, she could stand to clean and polish her act.
Intentionally untidy is Extraordinary Vacancy, Anne Goldmann’s sweetly silly clown show, written with Sue Morrison. Goldmann breaks from rehearsed routines to interact with the audience and the space around her. To a column at the front of the stage, she purrs, “Tall, dark, and handsome! Too bad you’re attached.” When not detailing her torrid affair with one Mr. Jack Daniels or fighting down layers of tulle, she dared some “high-risk dance performance.” Like the short skirts on West, Goldmann’s moves often threaten to reveal her underwear. She finally displays her red bloomers in a handstand, reassuring the audience that “It’s OK. They’re costume underwear.”
Costume outerwear proved central to Amanda Duarte’s Lucky Pink Wonderland, a spunky—if tepid—satire of fame culture. Duarte uses shoes, sunglasses, bracelets, and sweaters to transform herself into washed-up child star Pinky Peppercorn, superstar Jennifer Jolie, and a celebutante best known for consuming seafood sperm on a show called Don’t Even Eat That. Duarte writes some droll lines, as when Pinky explains her absence from the screen: “I was on a journey. I was finding myself. I intentionally lowered my profile. Because I was exhausted. Because I was dehydrated. I was dehydrated. For 15 years.” By choosing such large, blonded, bejeweled targets, Duarte can’t help but strike them.
The festival’s hit, so far, is Madi Distefano’s Popsicle’s Departure, 1989. Unfortunate title aside, the production displays few missteps, and Distefano, like Bogosian before her, impresses with her writing and performance of angry, injured characters. She plays two: 27-year-old rocker Jeremy and his 19-year-old girlfriend Dido. They share an unheated warehouse space in Boston, work bullshit jobs to pay the rent, and do drugs to stave off boredom. Lines from the piece don’t really bear repeating, as neither character is particularly articulate (Jeremy’s words of endearment? “Sweet, slutty little player”). But Distefano performs them eloquently. She lowers her ski cap a bit further down on her head to indicate Jeremy, but otherwise she works the change internally. The piece covers the last day of the couple’s relationship. Dido and Jeremy’s versions dovetail nicely until the play’s—and the couple’s—last minutes, when they shockingly diverge. That ending may smack a bit of melodrama, but Distefano makes it work—as a performer, she’s a “sweet little player” herself.