A 'Sideways' Glance

There are a couple of reasons why you've been seeing more one-character autobiographical plays (or monologues, or performance pieces) on stage over the last 10 years. One of them is, simply, finance: From a producer's point of view, it's a lot easier to pay one actor to appear for three weeks in "Anecdotes of My Life" than it is to pay 16 in the same time frame for A Midsummer Night's Dream. And then there's the writer/performer's motivation: As actors compete repeatedly in ego-eroding auditions, it naturally occurs to some of them that their own lives are roles they can't refuse. So performers — more so than full-time playwrights — decide to pen their personal stories, and offer themselves as indispensable to their scripts.

In some cases — Spalding Gray's, for example — the results are often delightful. But success isn't inevitable. Does the writer/performer have enough perspective on his/her life to find the art in its trajectory? How wide is the writer/performer's vocabulary, awareness of social issues, capacity for seeing the larger truths that any existence touches upon? At worst, the audience discovers a series of unconnected episodes, inadequately described and untouched by philosophy. At best we find our own story — and world — illuminated.

Which brings me to Claudia Shear's Blown Sideways Through Life, currently showing at the Shimberg Playhouse of the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. This Stageworks production, acted superbly by Carol A. Provansha, has several virtues, from a wonderful use of language to a fine sense of the comic, and, on a few occasions, some real insights into the fact that all of us, like author Shear, are misfits, oddities with "at least one story that will stop your heart." But the monologue more often is just a literate look through someone else's slides: interesting, occasionally stunning, funny and then a little tedious. You can't help but notice Shear's talents as you watch Blown Sideways, but neither can you help but wish she'd tied it all together better. A more selective approach, a better sense of what it all points to, and this could have been an important play.

As it is, it's a mixed bag. What Shear purports to do is to give us variously sized glimpses of some of the 65-or-so jobs she's worked at during her life, from waitress and nude model to receptionist in a whorehouse and actress in an Italian movie. Every description is rendered in pungent, often surprising language, and even when it's not at all clear why we're learning about, say, her stint as a nude model, we can enjoy her memories of the artist — "a bit of a genius, with the occasional chilling gaze of the true monomaniac" — or of his studio — "the safest place I've ever been, which is strange considering I was buck naked on a large table piled with old bedspreads."

Shear takes us from job to job, spending only seconds on some, many minutes on others, and occasionally, as when she talks about waitressing or laboring in her first bordello, the nuts-and-bolts information is priceless. OK, it doesn't add up; but even so, we're entertained and glad to have an inside look at things.

And then occasionally Shear accomplishes something much more significant. For example, she explains her reluctance go to bed some nights: because then a potentially sublime day "is over. You made some money but nothing happened. Nothing." Or when she describes waiters as trapped in a war, "caught between two flanks — customer and management." She begs the audience not to complain to restaurant management about the help because "the subject of your criticism will be fired ... out the door. Now, we're talking about a dinner you ate balanced against a person's job."

And she remembers seeing herself, unhappy and painfully overweight, reflected in a store window: "I couldn't believe that what was inside me looked like this to other people, that this was what the world saw ... my body layered with defeat." Perhaps the most powerful of these perceptive moments comes near the monologue's end when, taking a rare moral position, she demands, "You talk to people who serve you the food the same way you talk to the people you eat the food with. You talk to people who work for you the same way you talk to the people you work for. It's a one-size-fits-all proposition." At moments like this, Blown Sideways loses its snapshots-around-the-table randomness and becomes urgent and democratic, art and ethics in comfortable embrace.

But these moments, precious as they are, are relatively few; and for the most part, Blown Sideways exists without a shaping, overarching theme. There's nothing lacking, on the other hand, from Provansha's performance. She plays the Shear role with real fervor, easily dominating the stage and delivering some pretty daunting language with at times amazing self-control. Anna Brennen's impressive direction has Provansha muscling her way around the small Shimberg stage and even coming into the audience at times; while Michael DuMouchel's attractive set, a backdrop of large panels imprinted with want ads, is simple and simply perfect. The multicolored, oversize blouse that costumer Robin New places on Provonsha announces quite appropriately that this woman is not fading into anyone's woodwork.

Sometimes you've got to be satisfied with only partial success. Blown Sideways has its peaks — and though they're relatively few, I still think they're worth the price of admission.

See it with someone you work for.

Talent Will Rise. As local theatergoers know, Quentin Earl Darrington, 23, is one of the most talented performers in the area. As the Planet noted when it named him Best of the Bay "Best Actor" last year, he was the "one local actor who seems most likely to move on to professional success in the wide world beyond I-275."

Well, the wide world is on the case. A little over a week ago, Darrington, auditioning in New York, was informed that he had won the lead role of Coalhouse Walker Jr. in the national touring company of Ragtime. Soon he'll begin a 34-week tour of the U.S., and will even return to the Bay area — to Ruth Eckerd Hall — on April 12-14. Supporters will want to be there to cheer him on.

The appearance at REH, by the way, is more than appropriate. It was Robert A. Freedman, president of the hall, who was instrumental in getting Darrington the Ragtime audition and flying him up to New York.

Isn't it a pleasure when quality is acknowledged?

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