Solo shows are everywhere this summer. One theory for their abundance comes from these hard economic times, and how simple and inexpensive they can be to produce. More than 80 percent of entries in this summer's Hollywood Fringe consisted of solo performances, greeted by local critics with much consternation and denigration. But are they really a lesser form? Are we going to start belittling an entire subgenre because it is associated with narcissism, pop psychology and vanity? As a response to Joe Hernandez-Kolski's Awake, at Bootleg Theater, and Jed Mills' Choices, at Theatre/Theater, the unequivocating answer is, for each show, yes and no.
A long, long time ago — long before Hernandez-Kolski, Mills, Seinfeld and Lenny Bruce, even before Sophocles — theater consisted of a solo performer telling a story. That's how they did it in ancient Greece, before they figured out that adding a second actor did something infinitely fascinating and kaleidoscopic to a show's point of view.
An audience is a kind of jury, gathering at the shrine and thinking: Show me, prove it. In a solo performance, the larger truth of the actor-performer's situation lingers somewhere between the speaker and the juror.
It's quite a different event, however, when there appears a second or third actor, and these characters start talking to each other. Because now the jurors' assessments have to be plucked from some invisible thread among the various actors. And that's where it all gets exponentially more intricate and complicated.
What makes Anna Deavere Smith's solo shows, such as Lay Me Down Easy, recently closed at the Broad Stage, a provocative (and common) hybrid is their compendium of multiple characters who may not actually speak to each other but offer a parade of views on a theme (such as mortality, or an urban riot); the artistry lies in the ironies and poetry of accumulated people and perspectives, and the way their ideas bump up against each other. This is at least halfway to a multicharacter play, where the actors dissolve into their characters, though in Smith's shows, those characters still plead their cases directly to the jury.
In his show Awake, writer-performer Joe Hernandez-Kolski (ethnic and white, he says, depending on what he needs in any given situation) not only portrays himself, for the most part, he discusses with some facetiousness a certain resentment toward his now deceased mother for the unwavering love and support she gave him, which led to his bloated self-esteem and the conviction that he could and should do anything in life. And here he is, a soap opera–handsome performer approaching the age of 40 with some respectable acting credits and an empty checking account. He's neither a star nor a brain surgeon, nor the kind of scientist who would be in line for a Nobel Prize. And for the disenchantment of these realities, he blames his mother.
Hernandez-Kolski is a contemporary Mexican-Polish-American equivalent of Biff Loman in Arthur Miller's tragedy Death of a Salesman, who blamed his dad for all the deluded crap he filled his head with when he was young — the major difference being that Hernandez-Kolski has both wit and irony, and can dance really well. Biff Loman had no sense of humor and couldn't dance, even on a firing line.
Biff Loman was one character in a larger portrait of American society. Hernandez-Kolski also turns himself into a character, or characters: Thrilled that he lands a date via Facebook with a 21-year-old beauty, he satirically depicts the lovemaking with a curvy life-size cutout of a TV remote control. Much of the show's commentary comes from the blend of excitement and attention deficits propagated by our media and social networking technologies. Then she gives him the inevitable Facebook brushoff. And to this extent, Hernandez-Kolski, though depicting himself as a baby, also knows he's a child of our age, and gets that onto the stage. In his defense, the argument could be made that it's necessary to be a solipsist (the solo performer's calling card) in order to critique the downfall of our culture from the view of an insider, rather than from some chiding remove.
And yet there's that nagging sense of self-pity and self-glorification. Self, self, self. But is that any different from Deavere Smith, who, between characters, employs a silent assistant to bring her a glass of water or a costume piece — showing off her servant while portraying the downtrodden. Is it any different from the long tradition of divas, in theater and opera, who wait faux-modestly for the applause to subside after their first entrance. What's that got to do with the character they're portraying? There's a kind of folly in whining about the narcissism of actors, or theater, or anybody else in our 21st century of desolate self-absorption. It's like spitting into the wind.
Hernandez-Kolski's performance couldn't be sleeker; it's perfectly timed and delivered with a ferocity that careens from the satirical to the indignant. The show has been developed and directed by Benjamin Byron Davis, made all the more urgent by perfectly aimed shadows thrown by Bosco Flanagan's back lighting, and Alyssa Ishii's modulated sound design, which helps the show seem to float on air.
I saw writer-performer Jed Mills' Choices in previews at Theatre/Theater, where it's been in development for a while. It opens next week, playing on Tuesday nights. Mills could be Hernandez-Kolski's dad, a now-graying child of the '60s. He presents his show in the context of a 12-step Narcotics Anonymous meeting at "Manny's Gym." Compared to Hernandez-Kolski, Mills is neither nimble on his feet nor wry in his delivery. Under Renny Temple's direction, it's a show-and-retell version of an autobiographical past
After somewhat gratuitously rolling through his history with improv companies of yore, Mills details his arrest at LAX, with a suitcase full of cocaine smuggled in from Miami. Particularly striking are the details that emerge from the arrest, to the booking, to the months waiting for sentencing, to the details of life in a holding cell, and the transfer to prison, the inspections, the strip searches, the unutterable degradation and sadism and lunacy simply making the blood run cold.
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Mills is as raw as Hernandez-Kolski is slick, like an eccentric uncle with a tawdry past and a glint in his eye. You're glad you're not him, and you want to hear more.
AWAKE | Written and performed by Joe Hernandez-Kolski | Presented by Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Blvd., Echo Park | Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m. | Through Aug. 20 | (213) 389-3856 | bootlegtheater.org
CHOICES | Written and performed by Jed Mills | Presented by Theatre/Theater, 5041 Pico Blvd., Mid-City | Tues., 8 p.m. | Indefinitely | (818) 561-5878