Instant Spectacle: Just Add Bowlers And Bulgarians

I swear, I'll make you look babelicious: Canvas comes to life in 15 Head's 'Sacred Space'
Courtest of 15 HEAD

Jim Stowell is a master storyteller. For proof, check out the program for his new Park Square Theatre show, Jim Stowell's "Family Values". Says right there in the bio: "Master storyteller Jim Stowell." It just so happens that my dad, with whom Mr. Stowell shares a certain goateed baldness, is also a master storyteller. Really sucks you in, puts you in the scene, knows when to throw in a colorful phrase such as "Katy, bar the door" or "Let 'er go, Gallagher." And like Mark Twain and Ari Fleischer, he knows that a good yarn should be full of what the old folks back home used to call "shit." That's part of the storyteller's art. The raconteur who's overconcerned with factual accuracy is doomed to a lifetime of apprentice storytelling.

We accept that a good story requires embellishment and emendation. But we must also sense a foundation of authenticity, an essence of truth, and here is where Stowell's latest one-man show sometimes runs into trouble. Like many of Stowell's previous plays, Family Values is part travelogue, part memoir, part '60s-style consciousness-raising. In this Richard Cook-directed play, he describes a 1998 trip to Belfast, Northern Ireland, during which he stayed with a Catholic family in a beleaguered neighborhood. He also recalls experiences from his childhood in Magee, Texas, and draws parallels between Protestant vs. Catholic violence in Ulster and the milder friction between whites and Chicanos that he saw as a kid near the Rio Grande.

One of the stories takes place during a stopover in London. In a Black Like Me-style experiment, Stowell dons a tweed coat and cap, affects an exaggerated Irish brogue, and asks a passerby--who's carrying an umbrella and wearing a bowler hat--for directions to Buckingham Palace. Stowell's loud questioning attracts notice from four construction workers, whose hate-filled eyes seem to drill holes into Stowell. These glares, says Stowell, are the same type of killing looks that the protestant Anglos used to give Catholic Mexican-Americans back in Magee. In fact, Stowell admits, as an unenlightened youth he would have been one of the glarers.

Stowell's direct experience with prejudice provides punch, but there's something that rings false about the story. What, for starters, should we make of that bowler hat and umbrella? Remember, this is 1998, by which time such Mary Poppins trademarks of English bankers and stockbrokers had long fallen from favor. Granted, the guy might have been a Guards officer in civilian attire, or just an eccentric. It's entirely possible that he actually was equipped with bowler and bumbershoot, but it doesn't really matter. It sounds phony, like a carelessly fabricated detail or a joke that should be made more clearly. And that leads one to question the whole damn story. How do we know that Stowell wasn't just imagining those hateful stares from the English construction workers? Maybe they were thinking, Who's this crazy American with the daft Irish accent?, or Why does this ninny have business with the Queen while we're out here busting our arses?, or Oh please, tweed hats are so last season.

And so it goes. There are some fine stories in the show, and they are indeed expertly and charismatically told. But too many of them seem so convenient, not just in their possible fudging of facts, but also in their emotional significance. Though Stowell takes care not to overstate the connection between late-'90s Belfast and 1950s Magee, the stories often feel squished to fit the comparison. What's worse, after a show that at least refuses to indulge in bland neutrality or platitudes, Stowell does just that for the ending, which has all the sentimentality but none of the charm of a weepy Irish ballad.


Sacred Space is a multi-disciplinary effusion of sound and vision, accented with a text so enigmatic it barely dares to show its face. In other words, this is some seriously pretentious stuff. Now, there are worse sins than that. Without pretense, after all, where would the theater be? Besides, one person's bombast is another person's bold ambition, and there's an artistic derring-do to this production that one can only admire. Which doesn't change the fact that I could hardly wait for it to be over.

Conceived by 15 Head's artistic director Joe Stanley, the seed of Sacred Space was a portfolio of 26 of Stanley's favorite paintings, later distilled to 15, by artists such as Salvador Dalí, Lyonel Feininger, Edward Hopper, René Magritte, and John Singer Sargent. The company created vignettes based on their collective responses to the artwork, and then added a capella music to the mix. Like Stanley's set design and Mary Anna Culligan's costuming, the music is impressively polished. It includes Samuel Barber's "Agnus Dei," some postmodern doo-wop lifted from the Bobs, and a traditional piece learned from the great Bulgarian State Radio and Television Choir. The dense harmonies are frequently pretty, and Kathryn Jensen and Lori Barrett-Pagano are especially excellent singers. Still, the swing and doo-wop is of a sanitized variety, and stuff like the Bulgarian piece, though impressive for its pluck, seems to be missing something. Bulgarian women, perhaps.

Through all of Sacred Space's various media, 15 Head has sought to explore what Stanley in the program notes calls "the moments in which our experiences rise above the mundane." There is indeed little of the mundane about Sacred Space--which is directed by Jon Micheels Leiseth and Andrea E. McAvey--and just as little transcendence. There's a marching band of kazoo players, a ballet dancer in a pink "fish boy" costume, a rainstorm of oranges, a guy frantically stuffing newspapers into a briefcase, a quartet of mysterious gigglers. Like the paintings projected stage left, the play lets the viewer provide meaning. Either that or it means nothing, which would be okay, except it rarely even suggests anything. The humor is insufferably cute, and the abstraction seems less like a door to alternate perceptions than a bow wrapped around an empty box.

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