Earlier this year, solo performer Mike Daisey saw the best one-man show ever, though the circumstances were not propitious. He had to drive 12 hours to get there, stay up all night long, freeze his ass off—all for a piece 11 minutes long. And yet, “It totally rocked.” That solo performance: President Obama’s inaugural address.
Daisey discussed that occasion during “Why Solo Performance Matters,” a talk opening the 6th Annual soloNOVA Arts Festival. In a typically engaging speech, Daisey argued for the importance of the one-person show. Many of his claims were vague and somewhat mystical: “The one speaking to the many is a primal form”; “You see solo performance in every part of our society.” But Daisey did eventually hit on the genre’s unique appeal: “Solo performance,” he said, “is cheap—it’s very, very cheap.” (That probably didn’t apply to the inauguration.)
Finances aside, the four soloNOVA shows I recently attended did not much resemble each other or make a case for a distinct form: One owed its influence to storytelling, another to performance art, a third to more traditional theater, etc. No show wholly succeeded, and none attracted much of an audience. (If one is the loneliest number, 13 is still pretty forlorn.) Yet it’s a brave thing to take the stage as a writer-performer, and all the participants offered talent and courage—if not fully realized pieces of theater.
In The Surprise, storyteller Martin Dockery breaks his familial code of omertà. The Dockery clan maintains a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding emotional distress, yet their eldest son flouts this dictum. Dockery describes a recent trip to Southeast Asia, where he learned that his father, who had relocated to Vietnam, planned to divorce his mother and marry a Vietnamese woman who had recently birthed Dockery’s half-siblings. Surprise! While trying to shore up relationships with his father and new brother and sister, Dockery discovers the brittleness of his ties to his German girlfriend. Long-limbed and floppy-haired, Dockery is an appealing, if nervous, stage presence. Yet despite Jean-Michele Gregory’s judicious direction, the show feels slighter than it ought to: Dockery, true to his upbringing, still resists full emotional engagement and revelation.
More revealing is Svelte, the alter ego of Preston Martin and host of Fun Design With Svelte (Can You Believe How Fun This Is?!). He begins the show by removing his scarf and blazer, and then encouraging audience members to touch his “fuzzy pants.” Martin speaks in a strange, quasi-European accent that Svelte attributes to his ancestry: “Germany, Japan, Holland, Cherokee, and Denver.” He forces the entire audience onto the stage and has us enact his eight principles of fun-having. He makes us hold hands, recall our “funnest physical pain,” dance to Captain & Tennille, and sing along to a Jewel ballad. Martin seems like a very pleasant young man, but as the current administration has set itself against torture, this show cannot long survive.
The next performance, Abena Koomson’s Cozi Sa Wala: Magic Words, takes place at a memorial service: Two young Ghanaian immigrants have died in a car crash, and various aunties, sisters, and busybodies attend the funeral party to drink, dance, and gossip about the deceased. Koomson is a full-bodied woman with a gorgeous voice and enviable grace. Using a few brightly patterned shawls, she ably transforms herself from one character to another. Perhaps director Keith Oncale should have helped her to better transform the material—the short piece closes just as interest in the characters and stories coalesces.
Madeleine Mann knows how to capture audience attention from the start. The boy-crazy teen, a creation of writer-performer Ryan Migge, opens Mann Seeks Man: Jesus-Lovin’ Schoolgirl Seeks Soulmate with a mellow rendition of “God Only Knows.” Then she slits open her thighs with the point of a filed-down cross. Somehow, this does not help her win the school talent show or the affections of a young reprobate. Migge uses the communion-wafer-thin plot to excuse some very funny dance routines, many of them involving a lifesize cardboard cutout of the Son of God. Indeed, can this really be termed a solo show when Maddy is so clearly aided by Him? “Jesus,” she says proudly, “is my choreographer.” Then she gives the bearded guy a hug.
Though all these shows have closed, the festival continues with other examples of solo performance, such as Face, Haerry Kim’s show about comfort women; magician Jeff Grow’s Creating Illusion; and Aja Nisenson’s Piccola Cosi, which concerns jazz singing in Italy. Now if only we could convince Obama to make an appearance.