By Hayford, Justin | American Theatre, May 2000 | Go to article overview
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Hayford, Justin, American Theatre

A solo performer finds inspiration in the mundane lives of others

David Kodeski's sprawling Chicago flat is done up as though a rummage sale were in perpetual swing. He has assembled enough cast-off tchotchkes--snow globes, ashtrays, travel souvenirs, numerous reproductions of Jesus--to give the Salvation Army a run for its money. Pockets of thematically linked detritus document spurts of aesthetic mania. "I'm completely obsessive about things," he explains. "But only for very short bursts of time."

Over the past four years, those bursts have not only cluttered his apartment, they have redefined solo performance in Chicago. Kodeski concocts his mesmerizing one-man shows in the same way he decorates his apartment, cramming them with artfully orchestrated banalities and creating beauty from trivia. In so doing, he has moved the medium away from confessional autobiography toward the realm of cultural anthropology. But, like the junk that surrounds him at home, the culture he studies is decidedly prosaic. In his ongoing series, David Kodeski's True Life Tales, he tells the life stories of the most ordinary of people, creating theatre pieces that, by all logic, should fail to capture anybody's attention. "I love the idea of celebrating the life of someone who wouldn't ordinarily be celebrated," he says. "Lives that don't strive to fame are still rich and beautiful."

When he created his first piece in 1996, simply entitled Doris, he did so in large part out of spite. The performance poet, actor and director (whose day job is assisting TV movie critic Roger Ebert) had been to the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Cola., performing with Chicago's Neo-Futurists, the group that's been doing its dizzying presentation of 60 plays in 30 minutes, Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, to sold-out houses for 11 straight years. A former champion at the famed Chicago poetry slam, Kodeski had never done a solo piece, but the festival's major draw--Spalding Gray's Interviewing the Audience--got his mind spinning.

"I WAS EXCITED TO SEE SPALDING GRAY," he says, "but all he did was take people from the audience, bring them up on the stage and not so very subtly make fun of them.

"Now, I didn't love the Aspen audiences, either," he adds hastily. "They would wear their ski boots to performances and leave in the middle, making a very particular clumping sound. But still, there was never a point in the piece where I felt Gray delved into what makes a person a person."

So Kodeski set out to do just that. In defiance not only of Gray but of the glut of Chicago monologists convinced that re-picking their every emotional scab made for a riveting theatrical experience, Kodeski decided to erase himself from the piece he was planning. "I didn't want to do 'Poor me, sad me, oh, growing up gay in America.'"

Instead he interviewed a neighbor named Doris, the 93-year-old granddaughter of a sea captain and widow of a Methodist minister who lived in a retirement high-rise near his apartment. The home's activities director, who was also a well-established theatre director in town, recommended her. "She was a talker and a bit of a rabble-rouser," Kodeski explains. "She complained that all the popular residents in the home formed cliques in the cafeteria, just like high school. I mean, she called the place 'the penitentiary.'" (In keeping with her firebrand nature, Doris--who Kodeski acknowledges is still very much alive and kicking--insisted that he never divulge her last name to either audiences or nosy arts reporters.)

Over weeks of painstaking interviews, he assembled her life story-her privileged New England upbringing in a staunch Republican household, her desire to run away with the gypsies when they whirled through her hometown, her first job running a home for "wayward girls," the hours spent knitting ill-fitting socks for the boys during World War I, her adult life as a staunch Roosevelt Democrat.

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