Communication Breakdown

Speaking in tongues: Barrie Cole

Speaking in tongues: Barrie Cole

BARRIE COLE DOES not often find herself tongue-tied, but she stumbles when trying to describe her work. "Maybe the best way to describe what I do," she says, "is to compare it to writers I like: Gertrude Stein meets Ionesco meets..." And then the spoken-word artist pauses for a moment. "I don't know. Someone else. It's hard to define."

Cole, who is thirtyish and who onstage often looks like Wednesday Addams's depressed older sister, has performed one-woman shows around the Chicago area for the past ten years. She has also appeared at several Minnesota Fringe Festivals, where her particular brand of wry poetic monologues (which one critic dubbed "language gymnastics") and fervent delivery (often described as "possessed") have slowly built her a following. (Her notoriety has, fittingly enough, come by word of mouth.)

Cole onstage is relentlessly articulate: She recites her monologues with a mixture of precise diction and wild-eyed emphasis that would have delighted expressionistic film director F.W. Murnau. In a monologue titled "Ringing" from a past performance, Cole sat bolt upright in a stiff folding chair, hands placed delicately across her lap as the stage lights illuminated her face from underneath, turning her visage into a mask of deep lines and glowing eye sockets. "It's like this," Cole began. "A woman is thinking about dying."

With such a beginning, one would not expect the monologue that followed would generate much laughter. But Cole has a keen way of defying expectations with her words. In this instance, the woman's gloomy thoughts are entirely abstract ("She's even thinking about it from a linguistic perspective," Cole tells us). Her meditations are quickly interrupted by an unwelcome telephone call from a friend named Melanie. "'Death, Melanie,'" the woman tells her caller. "'Wow, Melanie, death.'

"But Melanie does not want to talk about death," Cole dryly informs us. "She's not in death. She's in wedding. She has to talk about what she's going to be wearing at the wedding." The remainder of the monologue follows Cole's hapless death- and wedding-obsessed callers as they try to find a common language. Initially, quite the opposite happens. Then Melanie turns up to discover her friend dancing and singing a Hindu chant to Shiva, and responds by dancing and singing "Hava Nagila"; conflict here is presented as a breakdown
in communication.

The surrealists used to claim that there was no such thing as a dialogue, that there were merely two monologues that occasionally intersected, as much by accident as by anything deliberate. In Cole's story this phenomenon is exaggerated to the point of absurdity. One character's monologue about death is so disconnected from another's monologue about marriage that they cease speaking a common tongue. One is hardly surprised to hear Cole cite Gertrude Stein as an influence (especially for Twin Cities audiences who have just witnessed two theatrical biographies of Stein). Anyone who is obsessed with language, as Cole is, eventually gravitates toward Stein.

The fact that Cole mentions Ionesco is more interesting. After all, Ionesco's first play (eventually dubbed The Bald Soprano) was originally titled English Without Pain and was a meditation on the failure of human discourse, consisting entirely of phrases inspired by a bland collection of sentences from an English-language primer (sample dialogue: "There it is, nine o'clock. We've drunk the soup.") But language doesn't simply fail or succeed in Cole's work; communication is more elaborate than that for Cole. She based one of her monologues on academic research into gossip; another monologue drew from notes she took on the way people talk about sports. Even in "Ringing," beyond the conflicting Jewish and Hindu chants, something is communicated: After noisily singing at each other, Cole's characters explode into laughter.

"They realize, they really realize, that in life these things can exist together," Cole tells us. "Weddings and death. Love and destruction. Call it a shotgun wedding of human logic and divine comedy.