Opening Nights: Solo Performance Festival

Channeling Pete Maverick and that stalker/astronaut lady.

So I have this friend who loves Mexican food and hates cilantro. "But," I always caution her, "cilantro is one of the basic ingredients in any Mexican dish." Heedless, she insists on making a run for the border cuisine, then requesting the enchiladas verdes combo or some pulled pork with mole, hold the cilantro, please. She thinks this works. The waiter and I know better.Such is also the case with SPF, the Solo Performance Festival now in its fourth year at Theatre Off Jackson—you've got to choke down what you don't like in order to get what you do. Some pieces boast an earthy grit, others are light or spicy, and some, like that side of Mexican rice, are clearly present only to occupy an otherwise vacant spot on the plate. There are amateurish moments, flashes of real revelation, and a couple of acts that do nothing more than plump up the running time.The festival is on nearly every night through April 3, with each night showcasing two or more solo performances. There are also three scheduled evenings of "shorts"—and the first one kicked off the festival on Wed., March 3. It began with Manuel Cawaling, who reduced Miss Saigon to a 10-minute serving of performance-art-for-one. He sings; he flirts with puppeteering; he plays the male and the female leads; and when skill fails him, pure spunk carries him through.Elizabeth Kenny followed—and brought a friend onstage with a shuffled stack of 3x5 cards. Each of the cards is marked with some turning point in Kenny's two-week collision with mental illness and a randomly chosen running time—ranging from 30 seconds to a minute—in which to tell it. At the end of the allotted time, her friend smacks the bellhop's bell and on she moves to the next vignette. The piece is harrowing, fearless, and oddly fun.In a piece called "Jam," the character played by longtime Seattle comic Peggy Platt arrives at a job fair by mistake, thinking it's a poetry slam, and decides to "audition" for work by reading a quatrain—a series of twitchy odes to caffeine and nicotine. If Platt posts her performance on YouTube, I'll happily show it at every dinner party for the next five years.She could be the Susan Boyle of the Great Northwest.In the second act, Tim Smith-Stewart enacted a sort of kid-in-his-bedroom sendup of Top Gun, playing all the parts, including Maverick, the decidedly bi-curious pilot/protagonist. It's illustrative of the difference between the bravura courage evident in the best solo performances and the kind of party-trick sketch your buddies pull out once they've had enough trash-can punch.As if to amplify that point, stand-up comic Emmett Montgomery attempted more serious stuff indescribing his late mother, whom he refers to as a "clown car," because she was a petite lady who nonetheless produced Emmett and a half-dozen brothers from her womb. Many non-professionals will make you wince at their nervousness, but Montgomery's had the audience in the palm of his hand. You won't see a more naked, authentic, or touching tribute any time soon.Finally, Keira McDonald brought it all home by playing astronaut-in-training, and nascent fruitcake from the news, Lisa Nowak, who allegedly drove hundreds of miles from Houston to Orlando (not having to stop because she was wearing diapers) to confront the fellow she says jilted her. (Ultimately, Nowak pleaded guilty to assaulting the man's girlfriend with pepper spray and was swiftly bounced from the NASA program.) It's an all-out assault on the senses that weaves comedy, pathos, singing, some terrific mime-weightlessness, and,'s just the reason that people like me love to go to these things.

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