Can you imagine a profession more challenging than that of solo performer?
Case in point: An actor moves frenetically across the stage, uses a smattering of props (books, a chair, desk, computer), delivers fast-paced dialogue over a 90-minute stretch, and with a thousand eyes watching every move.
Add in clever choreography, constantly shifting characters and accents, a double-sided blackboard with overlapping diagrams (chalked throughout the show), use of a red tie and blonde suit jacket for character enhancements, all while delivering rapid-fire comedic lines that keep the audience in stitches!
I had the pleasure of seeing this solo virtuoso in action last week in his sixth one-man show, “Latin History for Morons,” written and performed by actor/comedian/playwright John Leguizamo and co-produced by Berkeley Repertory Theatre and New York’s Public Theater.
In the play, Leguizamo attempts to teach his son (and members of the audience) about various “heroes” drawn from 3,000 years of Latino history and highlight the leadership roles they played in building our country.
From satirical recaps of Aztec and Incan lore to stories of Latin patriots in the Revolutionary and Civil wars, Leguizamo’s irreverent interpretations combined with his consummate timing and inimitable delivery made me wonder: “How does he do this eight times a week?”
“Solo performance is an art form of its own,” writes USC theater professor Eric Trules (Huffington Post, April 6, 2015). “There is a first person ‘voice’ which is different than the voice of the novelist, journalist, diarist and different from all other first person voices of the writer.”
“What makes it different is that it must be ‘experiential.’ It must bring the audience out of their seats and up onto the stage with the monologist. The traditional ‘fourth wall’, whichinsulates actor from the audience is usually broken.”
Watching Leguizamo reminded me of my friendship with and multiyear presentations by author/actor/monologist Spalding Gray, whom Trules calls “the grandfather of modern solo performance.”
Gray, who passed away in 2004, performed what Trules defines as “autobiographical storytelling,” and describes Gray’s work to a tee: “The New England WASP who spun his paranoid, poignantly funny neuroses into beautifully poetic, autobiographical monologues.”
“Swimming to Cambodia,” an original Gray play/monologue and later documentary film directed by Jonathan Demme in 1987, is, if you are unfamiliar with his work, the best way to begin to appreciate the incredible artistry of Gray’s work.
During my 10 years as an arts presenter at Washington University/St. Louis (and where Gray’s brother Rockwell taught in the English department), Spalding Gray would bring his newest “confessionals” almost every other year, including: “Monster in a Box” (an attempt to write a novel); “Impossible Vacation” (man’s quest for happiness); “It’s a Slippery Slope” (fear of skiing); “Gray’s Anatomy” (eye issues); and “Morning, Noon and Night” (one day in his life after the birth of second son Theo).
Wearing his trademark flannel shirt, Gray would be seated at a small, wooden desk center stage with only a glass of water and handwritten notes. His delivery was muted, but his “stories” were riveting, eccentric, thoroughly engaging and funny. At a Spalding Gray performance, you could hear a pin drop in stark contrast to the wild, boisterous, hilarious mayhem created by John Leguizamo.
Catch “Latin History for Morons” before it closes on Aug. 14. For tickets, visit tickets.berkeleyrep.org. Don’t go solo – bring a friend and laugh yourselves silly!