Torch Song

Stars and stripes forever: Writer and performer Chris Wells takes liberties with the American dream

Theater, we are told by our edition of Compton's Encyclopedia, began a long time ago in Greece, when a clever fellow named Thespis stumbled upon the idea of adding an actor to the choric rituals of the festival of Dionysus. What had been a monologue delivered directly to the audience thus became a dialogue between those on the stage, with the rabble of Athenian revelers relegated to the role of spectators. Things were peachy for a millennium or so, until a clever fellow named Sigmund stumbled upon the idea of the ego. Now, theatergoers were able to recognize that even when actors were apparently holding forth among themselves onstage, the resultant conversation was really between the writer and his id--or some such thing. It was a fine idea, but didn't really take hold until the late Twentieth Century in America, when ego finally became the currency of art. Thus the one-person show was born.

As coincidence would have it, there was a little Dionysian debauch before last Friday's opening of Chris Wells's provocative one-man show, Liberty! Wine flowed, and a persistent young lady was sent around to request that the guests eat a piece of garden pizza, or at least a cucumber sandwich. Miss Richfield 1981 made a spectacular entrance in a red, white, and blue minidress, looking a bit like a walking fireworks display. Although I thought it certain that she would be the best-dressed lady in attendance, I looked forward to Wells's portrayal of Lady Liberty herself. I felt some lingering trepidation, however, having been let down before.

The first time I laid eyes on the Statue of Liberty, David Copperfield vanished her almost instantly. On my second viewing, the grand dame of national monuments was hiding behind a wall of scaffolding that looked from the harbor ferry like a steel and Saran Wrap dressing screen. Perhaps workers were behind it ensuring that the torch of freedom would burn for generations of immigrants to come. Maybe they were just washing off the pigeon guano. I never found out.

Having been twice shafted by Lady Liberty, I was naturally skeptical when she came tumbling into the theater. In moments the statuesque figure had doffed her flowing robes and spiked tresses and revealed herself to be a turnip-shaped man in fishnet stockings. He sputtered a greeting in pidgin French. For the next hour and a half, I only stopped laughing to finish off the remnants of a second cucumber sandwich.

It is apparent that Wells, who developed Liberty! at the star-studded Actors' Gang Theatre in Los Angeles under the direction of Minneapolitan Bridget Carpenter, has settled on a task worthy of his monumental muse. Blending the esprit of a drag show with a discursive intelligence, Liberty! immediately sets about mapping the sociological topography of America (symbolized in Eye of the Storm's production by a map painted onto the stage by Kim Lawler). At the outset, our disgruntled Colossus has grown weary of a static existence in the primordial muck that is New York harbor and has decided to set off on her own. The "big-boned" French femme is on the lam from "Ted the Fed," who appears periodically to cock his gun. At the same time, she is in search of a "Boy Named Freedom," a naive kid whose only dream is to growing up to become...well, the Statue of Liberty.

All this seems a bit improbable at first--after all, an actual boy named Freedom would have little time to indulge in juvenile fantasies, as he would be occupied primarily by regular playground thrashings. Luckily, as it turned out, Liberty! isn't so much a story as a riff on the notion of liberty and freedom. And just as luckily, Wells quickly proves that he is an adept riffer.

After introducing the Harbor Harlot and the host of other characters in a flurry of words and quick comedic changes, Wells settles into a pace that is somewhere between that of an itinerant preacher and Ethel Merman hopped up on Dexedrine. He rockets through a free-associative alphabet lesson, sings "America the Beautiful" as a torch-song medley, and finally slows down to deliver a haiku poem. "America," he intones with a deadpan look at the tittering audience. "Many moods. Desire lands desire. Adventure beckons." Not great poetry perhaps, but then neither is "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore."

In the second half of the show, Wells slows his manic cadence. Freedom has gotten himself arrested trying to climb up the inner thigh of Lady Liberty. Next there is a routine about the burgeoning prison population, a short rant about gay identity politics, a cabaret number from a frazzled prostitute named Glory Hallelujah, and finally the fateful meeting between Liberty and Freedom on the farthest shore of California. In Wells's America, liberty is, as Ambrose Bierce wrote, nothing more and nothing less than the most precious possession of the imagination.


Liberty! runs through June 27 at the ETC Theater; (612) 728-5859.

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