Though Dael Orlandersmith is happily back in ACT's Bullitt cabaret space, Monster, her second one-woman show to make it to Seattle, lacks some of what made her 1999 appearance in The Gimmick so gorgeously triumphant. Playing an array of struggling souls—mainly Theresa, a young woman from Harlem desperate to live the life promised in counterculture rock 'n' roll—she's certainly as fervent as remembered. Even when the work here is uneven, it never slips into the disingenuous, smug tone of many solo shows that suggests a performer believes he or she is saving language from its trifling, everyday use. When Orlandersmith is at her passionate best, you get the thrilling feeling that the words have rescued her, have taken her to a different plane.
A Contemporary Theater ends February 11
That verbal transport is still in evidence. Whether speaking of "the ghetto where you once, always, belonged" or pleading with a lost friend to tell her if death is "warm womb warm," she has not lost an abiding respect for verbal rhythms. The material is full, too, of artful observation, especially concerning the insidious and only half-considered attempts made by the people in Theresa's life to keep her chained to their personal defeats. The outraged sadness that quickly takes Beula, her drunken mother, from sweetness to vitriol ("You are not in my league," she hisses at Theresa) is deftly written and carefully measured in performance.
At other times, however, Orlandersmith seems surprisingly almost gauche, something that director Richard E.T. White, though elsewhere contributing an attentive discipline, hasn't managed to curb. As Marsha, a friendless, suicidal kid with psoriasis, she comes uncomfortably close to a maudlin obviousness as both writer and actor, ornamenting a despair that would be more powerful, and believable, if left on the inside. The artist crosses too often here the fine line between universal humanity and dramatic clich頴hat she walked so effortlessly in The Gimmick.
Monster was actually written before The Gimmick, and it shows. This earlier piece houses the same shadows as its superior follow-up— neglect, rape, and other brutalities—but it's not built with the same finesse nor home to an equal capacity for the promise of joy. We're not witness to much of Theresa's personal transformation; she remains mostly a conduit for the "machete voices" that try to cut her down. We just don't feel enough of the release that the music she loved supposedly gave her; we aren't privy to her escape. On Peggy McDonald's set, the icons of Theresa's freedom—Bowie, Hendrix, and Iggy Pop—are framed and fairly glowing just above her head. What Monster needs to do is better articulate that place of honor by allowing them to descend into the heart of the show.