Friday, April 29, 2022

On Solo Performance

Clyde Jevne in "One-Man Hamlet"
(Theatre Inconnu, 2011)
The best production of Hamlet I have ever seen was a solo performance created by Dr. Clayton Jevne, Founding Artistic Director of Theatre Inconnu (Victoria, British Columbia). Titled One-Man Hamlet, it was one of the several productions I attended at the Minnesota Fringe in 2003.
“... Nick, Denny and I went to see One-Man Hamlet at Bryant-Lake. That kicked ass, the man is a freak, and not only that, but a Canadian freak and we sat in the dark eating cheeseburgers and drinking pints of Summit and watching this guy charge around the stage with music stands with balloons on them representing all the different characters, it was a whoot.” - I Hate This Blog, 8/9/2003
The cheeseburger was only part of what made it special. The Bryant-Lake Bowl in Minneapolis is a bar and grill, bowling alley and cabaret theater all under one roof. We’d placed orders before the show and fifteen minutes in, a server brought my dish and it was passed down to me by friendly audience members.

"I Hate This (a play without the baby)"
(Red Eye Theatre, 2003)
I wasn’t the only one served. This is totally a thing that they do at Bryant-Lake.
“... Denny and I are going to see Heretic [a solo performance by Niki McCretton] this evening at 6. Toni got to see [Staggering Toward America, a solo performance by Rik Reppe] this afternoon ... and I did my last performance.” - I Hate This Blog, 08/10/2003
That would be my last performance for I Hate This. My trip to Minnesota nineteen years ago was the first time I brought my solo performance on stillbirth to an audience of almost complete strangers.
“Forty people in the house, a strong Sunday afternoon showing … Clayton the One-Man Hamlet man was in the house, and his lovely wife. Our midwife's daughter made the show! And there were rumors ... maybe Matthew Everett made it (and his mom) [more on that here]. I am grateful for the attention.” - I Hate This Blog, 08/10/2003
The solo performance is a particular kind of drama, but it can be so many different things. Ten years or so ago there were several traveling shows in which one guy would tell all of The Lord of the Rings or the entire Harry Potter saga in a single evening, which is a kind of parody. It’s for the fans, but it’s also meant to be hilarious.

Jevne’s One-Man Hamlet is much more than that. It is very funny, to be sure. But he’s playing something like an addled street performer with the least expensive props possible and what is remarkable is how he just keeps going, playing all the characters, telling the entire story. 

My favorite part is how he takes all of those moments that a character describes something that happened in the recent past (Ophelia telling her father what Hamlet did in her closet, Hamlet telling Horatio about the pirates) by opening a foot locker pulling out puppets and miniatures.

Sometimes a solo performance is in the service of a familiar tale, like Jevne’s, or when we saw local artist Terry Canendonk perform I Dreamed of Rats, his adaptation of the Inspector General. Or it is autobiographical, like Reppe’s Staggering Toward America, in which he told the true story of his journey across the nation after 9/11. He becomes the people he met along the way, but it’s no different than a good friend telling a great yarn over a fire. There’s a personal connection necessary in these kinds of performances, and Reppe’s personality was big and he embraced the crowd with it.

Nina Domingue
"The Amazing and Absolutely True Adventures
of Ms. Joan Evelyn Southgate"
(Cleveland Public Theare, 2002)
While we’re on the subject of solo shows I saw almost in Minnesota almost two decades ago, Heretic was yet another kind of one person performance, a play with one character, and little or no text. Utilizing video, a big open stage and a large aquarium, McCretton is a woman who has been exiled to the surface of the moon for the crime of having religious belief, and may not return until she has filled the fish tank with her tears.

It’s a flex, standing on stage, by yourself, for an hour or so. You are the only person holding the attention of an entire audience.

My good friend Nina Domingue has written and performed several solo shows, most recently The Amazing and Absolutely True Adventures of Ms. Joan Evelyn Southgate, which opened to a full house at Cleveland Public Theatre last weekend. Watching Nina play is a masterclass in catching and keeping an audience, not only skilled in portraying all manner of characters, but also staying in tune with and reacting to the assembled.

I have written and performed two solo shows. This spring I have been writing an essay, meant to be read aloud, about my mother’s death, called Falling. I have no idea what I might do with it, though I am glad to have written it.

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