Sunday, Oct. 30, 2011

Shades Of Gray

The Life of Spalding Gray As Celebrated by Theatre Gigante

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Spalding Gray was a truly remarkable performer. When he first started performing, the idea of going to watch someone deliver an autobiographical monologue wasn’t nearly as commonplace as it is today. It wasn’t just that he was one of the first people to really make a name for himself talking about his life onstage, it was the fact that Spalding Gray really was a very, very good storyteller.

After an unfortunate car accident in 2001, Gray had succumbed to deepening depression that ultimately resulted in his suicide. Okay, so that’s a gross oversimplification, no amount of complexity can change the fact that he’s gone.

His work lives on in numerous recordings of his performances . . . there were a few movies made from some of what he’d produced. His Monster in a Box, Swimming to Cambodia and Gray’s Anatomy monologues have all been turned into modest films that are freely available for purchase online if you know where to look. Director Stephen Soderbergh developed an exhaustive biographical retrospective on the captivating monologist’s life about a year ago. That profoundly moving film, And Everything Is Going will be screened again today at 2pm at UWM's Kenilworth Building at 1925 E. Kenilworth Place as the closing event of Theatre Gigante’s weeklong “Spald-a-Rama”—a week which also consisted of quite a few performances of Stories Left To Tell—a Theatre Gigante production of the Kathleen Russo/Lucy Sexton edited collection of Spalding Gray monologues that was originally staged by others in New York.

As I write this, Stories Left To Tell will be featured in one final performance following the weekend’s initial screening of And Everything Is Going Fine, which is a deeply affecting way to experience Theatre Gigante’s staging. When I saw Gigante’s Stories Left To Tell, it was after seeing a screener copy of the film that I managed to track down at home. Gray’s widow Kathleen Russo sees the live show as a part of a trilogy that includes a collection of Gray’s journal entries that has just been published. And though I haven’t bought the book, the effect of seeing the stage play after having seen Soderbergh’s film is really fascinating.

The film covers Gray’s entire life from beginning to end in his own words, complete with him talking about what he’d like on his tombstone while a dog howls in the background . . . very moving and haunting stuff . . . a few hours later, I went off to see Gigante’s production of the stage play . . . which features a lot of the same material being performed by people who aren’t Spalding Gray. After the show, Russo held a brief question and answer period. She said people had approached her with the idea of having the show done by one person behind a desk. She didn’t want that.  She wanted to show that Gray’s work can be done by others. The Theatre Gigante performance was a bit jarring for me . . . yes, Gray’s work can be done by other people, but the disconnect was a little strong for me at first . . . because his monologues are so fiercely personal, it’s kind of hard to hear other people perform it in other voices.

Not that there weren’t some great imprssions here. The love in Gray’s life was brought to the stage by the warmth of Isabelle Kralj’s stage presence. His journals were read in a style not altogether unlike Gray’s behind a desk neatr a portable boom box by Marcie Hoffman. Gray’s sense of adventure is brought to the stage in a way that hauntingly echoes Gray’s conversational stage style by the towering Mark Anderson. In his own distinct diction and Sandburgian softness, John Kishline spoke of Gray’s family. On he night I saw it, Deborah Clifton performed Gray’s recollections on his career—a portion of Gray’s psyche brought to the stage the previous evening by Dan Mooney. (As I write this, Holly Hughes is preparing for the final performance.)

Amidst imple lighting and stacks and stacks and stacks of marble memo books, the cast brought to life basic elements of the man’s life as spoken through the voices of others. Having been so familiar with Gray’s voice performing much of this stuff, I guess I didn’t feel entirely connected with it. As time progresses, it would be nice to see Stories Left to Tell continue to be produced and heard by the ears of those who may not be as familiar with the author . . . the man had a profoundly interesting perspective on life and it’d be really reassuring to see his life echoed into the stage through others performing his monologues, al in their own distinctive styles . . . but for me it’s a bit like . . . like I seem to remember Dennis Leary’s No Cure for Cancer being published as a script—a monologue. And I tried to imagine anyone else performing it and I couldn’t . . . but that’s a lot more like a stand-up comic performance than a monologue—as hard as it is to envision someone else performing it, theoretically, someone could because it’s not really autobiographical. Finding someone else to perform Spalding’s work . . . an ensemble capable of moving it into the stage dynamically is a huge challenge. And for someone who didn’t realize how much of a fan he was of Spalding Gray’s . . . Theatre Gigante did some really good work of building the niversality out of the specifics of what Gray’s deeply, deeply personal material. More work really should be done in this direction, but I don’t know that I’m quite ready to feel as good about it as I am when I load-up the Soderbergh-directed Gray’s Anatomy again to watch it one more time . . . again . . .

 

Theatre Gigante’s Shades of Gray ran for one weekend only. Theatre Gigante’s next show is a celebration of the life of UWM Dance Department’s Ed Burgess. From Ed, By Ed, For Ed runs February 16th -19th at UWM’s Kenilworth Studio 508.

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