Two's a Crowd

While temping as an office drone a few years ago, local writer and actor David Mann brought a handful of press clippings from his latest show to his temporary boss. He handed them to her excitedly, hoping for some acknowledgment of his extracurricular talents, whereupon his boss murmured, "That's nice," and asked him to file a stack of something or other. The indignities mounted: At one point, Mann was commissioned to pose as the statue, "The Thinker," at an office party. "They see you as totally expendable," Mann chuckles now.

Thankfully, Mann was able to transform his travails in the corporate jungle into something besides a paycheck and a bruised ego; Temporary Insanity, Mann's comic take on temp work, will premiere this week as part of "Absolute Originals," a monthlong festival of one-person performances at Intermedia Arts. Along with 12 other foolish or fearless souls, Mann will be showcasing his talents to a world that otherwise tends not to know or care what he does with his evenings. Every drone, it seems, must have his day--or at least an hour or two to give the indifferent world hell.

As in the festival's previous incarnation at the Bryant-Lake Bowl, the talent pool ranges from stalwart scenesters like Mann and Heidi Arneson (Pre-Hansel and Post-Gretel), to relative newcomers like Ronnell Wheeler (Knee-deep in Black-Eyed Peas, Hair, and Love) and Jerrie Steele (Whispers and Shadows). The shows themselves are an equally eclectic blend of the discursive and the intimate, the transgressive and the trashy. In the space of a week, you might find Colleen Kruse (Peep Show) expounding on her erotic peccadillos, Zach Curtis (War Golems) taking a darkly comic tour through Vietnam, and theatrical dissident John Troyer (Degenerate) following his existentialist muse on sci-fi safari.

All these intrepid exhibitionists require to spread the gospel of the self is an audience. And that, dear reader, is where you and your six to eight dollars enter the equation. So choose carefully, patronize generously, and bear in mind that there is no more compelling drama than the human ego showing itself off.

Shtick it to the Man

Making fun of a bad situation, Mann's Temporary Insanity profiles the hard, thankless existence of the itinerant serfs of the corporate realm. In the course of his show, Mann will play 20 characters, ranging from stodgy CEOs to embittered secretaries and every rung in between on the corporate ladder. Naturally, his hero is a temp named Clark Kent (downsized, apparently, from the Daily Planet). Like most temps and performance artists, Mann's alter ego has delusions of grandeur. "He has this recurring daydream about being a rock star," the author explains. "He's like this Jim Morrison character up in front of a huge crowd, and it's this sort of quasi-religious experience. He's like, 'Burn the Man! We're all being screwed by the system.'" 7:30 Thurs., Feb. 10 and 9:30 Fri., Feb. 18.

Remembrance of Things Past

Writer and actor Zaraawar Mistry transcends the often stultifying solipsism of one-person shows with The Tragedy of Sohrab and Rustum, a reworking of an ancient Parsi epic that, he explains, is the legacy of a quietly disappearing culture of ethnic Persians who settled in India. "There are only 100,000 Parsi left in the world, so there's a sense of decline in the community. At the same time, there's a struggle to maintain traditions." As homage, Mistry will adorn his storytelling with the iconography of Parsi ritual, including a silver tray bearing rose water, rice, and rocks commonly presented at births and funerals. "I still don't feel like the piece is complete," Mistry explains. "I can sense things welling up and taking a step toward further life....I'm curious to see if anyone else cares." 7:30 Fri., Feb. 11 and 2:00 Sun., Feb. 13.

Just Because You're Paranoid...

Although Degenerate, by agitprop artist John Troyer, is the final installment in a triptych--including last year's existentialist parable, SissY, and 1997's macabre comedy, Grave Marker--this latest postpostmodernist fantasy was also shaped by outside influences--most particularly Troyer's brutal mugging a few hours before the show's 1999 Fringe Festival premiere. "Because doing the show is literally what kept me going," Troyer explains, "I think I've tapped into some of that. In a lot of ways, Degenerate has become a rethinking of what it is to have a character revolt against his author. The idea of the fictional narrative sort of hit me in the face." 9:30 Fri., Feb. 11 and 7:30 Wed., Feb. 23.

Freeing the Inner Diva

Identity--that slippery byword of performance art--is the subject of Ronnell Wheeler's Knee Deep in Black-Eyed Peas, Hair and Love, which tracks a young man's transformation into a young drag queen. "In the feminist movement," the author explains, "drag queens and transvestites are looked down upon as a mockery of the female form." Wheeler's corrective fable posits drag as an assertion of independence from the social strictures placed on gay men. "Instead of objectifying, the character comes to identify with the feminine-male body. That shatters the--what's the word?--internalized oppression, when you realize what you were looking for was right in yourself all along." That ought to ring true even for those who don't feel their inner Diana Ross knocking to come out and play. 7:30 Sat., Feb. 12 and 7:30 Sun., Feb. 20.  

Everybody's Doing It

In past years, local comedian Colleen Kruse has turned her storytelling talents to tales of drinking (The Bottle) and waitressing (Food Chain). This year Kruse talks about sex, baby, in Peep Show. Among her autobiographical yarns, Kruse includes a playground incident in which she contrived to sneak a peak at her first male member. "It's about the dawning realization that this is something you might be interested in," she explains. "It's like an evil Wonder Years episode." Although Kruse mines her own life for material, she also promises that the sexual misbehavior in Peep Show will be recognizable to all. "It's not something that's so intensely personal. My goal is to shed light on the banal. I mean, these things don't just happen to me....Good God, I hope they don't!" 9:30 Sat., Feb. 12 and 7:30 Mon., Feb. 14.

Stripping for a Better Body Image

While working in Los Angeles, actor Peggy Kelley used to get sent out on casting calls as "the fat best friend." Kelley turns indignation over the slight into insight in My Bodies of Evidence, a series of comic sketches about body image. Among Kelley's dramatis personae: a nun struggling with her sexuality, an L.A. actress/Weight Watchers guru, and "Harvard Boy," a privileged youth whose infatuation with a female stripper gradually transforms him into the object of his own desire. In preparation for the role, Kelley explains, she herself learned the stripper's art from a professional choreographer. "I wanted to make people uncomfortable," she says, "and at the same time make them laugh." 7:30 Sun., Feb. 13 and 9:30 Fri., Feb. 25.

War: What's it Good For?

A few guilty laughs, if we are to believe Zach Curtis, whose one-man show War Golems relates with an honest and often acridly comic sensibility the experience of his father on a gunship crew in Vietnam (it was co-authored by Rob Curtis and Jon Olsen). "The big thing we got from doing the show at the [1999] Fringe Festival," Zach explains, "is that people didn't realize it was a comedy. They hear 'Vietnam War' and they think, 'Evil, torture, and anger.' There was some of that, but they had fun there, too." 7:30 Wed., Feb. 16 and Sat., Feb. 26.

Happily Never After

For her outré entrée, performer/provocateur Heidi Arneson revives Pre-Hansel and Post-Gretel, a grotesquely comic meditation on the Grimm Brothers. Gretel, "the last nurse on Earth," is recovering from witch-induced posttraumatic stress syndrome, while her brother, now a freak-show carny, works through psychosexual dysfunction in New Brighton. "I do not want to hurt you," Arneson's Hansel explains in one soliloquy. "I do not want to slap my hand against the bare skin of your buttocks. I do not want to stare into your eyes until your pupils deliquesce." For those theatergoers averse to having the bare skin of their buttocks slapped, that ought to come as good news indeed. 7:30 Thurs., Feb. 17 and 9:30 Sat., Feb. 26.

When Poets Attack

Local poetry slam luminary Thien-Bao Phi drops some verse in Flare (which is also the title of his recently released debut CD). Onstage, as on his new album, Phi will be backed by the beatboxing of Truth Maze. Yet the evening's main event will undoubtedly be the silvery lyrical stylings of Phi himself. "Whispering bilingual riddles that turn into the ghosts of breath in the air," he chants in one poem. "Yes, I went looking for our blues, while, overhead, the stars lit up like flares. Asian America, I went looking for you." 9:30 Thurs., Feb. 17 and 7:30 Fri., Feb. 25.

Out of Africa

In Whispers and Shadows, writer/performer Jerrie Steele presents a series of theatrical vignettes about the African-American experience, focusing, by and large, on the legacy of slavery. One, "White Doll," tracks a young girl's relationship to the titular plaything. Another, "Who, What Be Me," is about a slave girl, raped by a white man and sentenced to hang. Says Steele, "Telling her story is a way to bring her back to life." Steele does not limit her subject matter to sentient beings, however. In "The Negress of the Nile," she will wear a mask shaped like an antique plate while drumming in order to relate history from the perspective of dishware. "The drums intensify the feelings of the plate," she explains. 7:30 Fri., Feb. 18 and Mon., Feb. 21.  

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Juilliard-trained actor Anita Skinner returns to the stage after a 20-year hiatus to embody Emily Dickinson in William Luce's The Belle of Amherst, a one-woman show based on the poet's life and letters. The purpose, according to director Mark Miller, is to illuminate the inner sanctum of an artist stranded in a period too unenlightened to accept her. "She had a holistic, new age spirituality at a time when it was unfathomable," Miller says. "People were so conservative about religion then. Everything was about toiling and burden and working hard. Dickinson took spirituality and intellectualism to a place where no one could keep up with her." Which explains the oft-neglected first draft of Dickinson's poem, "Because I Could Not Stop For Death, Instead I Did Tai Chi." 7:30 Sat., Feb. 19 and 2:00 Sun., Feb. 20.

Didn't Your Mother Ever Tell You Not to Make Plays With Your Food?

Paul Herwig, a local actor trained in the same Parisian school as the Theatre de la Jeune Lune folks, introduces us to Mr. Cheese, the Banana Brothers, and Mike the Melon Peel in Dessert, a comic glimpse into the gestalt of a buffet. In a different key, Herwig will also perform The Griffin, an original play about a mythological beast with the head of an eagle and the body of a lion. "It's sort of hypertheatrical," Herwig promises. "People who watch a lot of TV probably shouldn't come. Plus, it's Greek tragedy, so everybody dies." 9:30 Thursday, Feb. 24 and 7:30 Sunday, Feb. 27.

Just Because You're
Paranoid, Redux...

A few years ago, while playing with his kids in the park, local writer/actor Matthew Vaky struck up a conversation with a pleasant-looking gentleman on a bench. "Did you hear about the Hubble Telescope?" the man asked. "It's supposed to find out where we come from, but it has faulty mirrors. How can we know where we come from without mirrors?" Vaky contemplated the idea, assuming it to be some rather profound metaphor for our human condition. "Then I noticed that the guy had a half-eaten banana sticking out of his pocket and mud all over his suit. He said, 'You know, it's a conspiracy.' And I went, 'Well, I should probably be going now.'" Brief as the exchange was, Vaky saw the kernel of comedy; his The Bench Play lampoons our infatuation with far-flung cabals, from Christopher Columbus's Mafia connections to the second Abraham Lincoln assassin "hiding behind the glassy pole." "Everything is connected," Vaky asserts, "so maybe those people who claim there are vast conspiracies are kind of right. In a way, we're all responsible." 7:30 Thurs., Feb. 24 and 2:00 Sun., Feb. 27.

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