Flying Solo

Borderlands Proves Once Again That Big Things Come In Small Productions.
By Mari Wadsworth

THE MAGIC OF theatre often refers to the phenomena around creating a microcosm of life there on the elevated stage, a drama so compelling or entertaining we can't help but suspend our disbelief until the players have had their way with us. But the theatrical group has another trick in these dust-bowl days for arts funding: the disappearing act. Borderlands Theater, a rugged little company that's consistently turned out thought-provoking plays with impressive production values over its past 10 seasons, rounds out February with a pair of powerful solo performances which promise to rank among your most memorable nights out this year. Here's the catch: They'll be here and gone in the blink of an eye.

The first, Good Grief, Lolita!, takes center stage on Friday and Saturday, February 21 and 22. The full-length work is written and performed by Puerto Rican actress Wilma Bonet, who portrays all nine of its characters. The story she tells is of the week following the death of her 7-year-old daughter, Lolita, who was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at the age of 2. Bonet tells us about the evolution of the play via telephone from her San Francisco home.

"I had wanted to write a one-woman show. I didn't know this was what I was going to do. I'd always been curious about how I'd dealt with the death at the time. I wasn't able to cry when she passed. I felt that she was gone, that she had been suffering and now it was over. There was something special about the way she home, in an environment full of love and people that cared for her."

That was in 1980. Approximately 10 years later, Bonet, who'd already become a distinguished Bay Area actress for her work with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, among others, enrolled in a workshop called "Writers Who Act," run by Bill Talen. Then around 30 herself, she says, "I showed up with a monologue for a 16-year-old girl. He asked for something else." What she came back with was a five-minute piece that would become, over the next four years, Good Grief, Lolita! "I can't remember exactly which piece, because it's transformed so much since then. But I think I was talking about the death experience, what was all around (Lolita). He was quite touched by it, and he said, 'This is what you're going to do.' "

Indeed, Lolita premiered to rave reviews in May of 1994 at the Brava! Studio in San Francisco. It's since been performed only a handful of times, though to great acclaim, in San Jose, Dallas and select Bay Area theaters. Though Bonet is no stranger to Tucson (she's been conducting a series of workshops locally with Mujeres Que Escriben, the Edge Program and PCC Women in Progress), this is her first Tucson performance.

In addition to playing herself, her nine characters include Lolita, Tía Maria, a doctor, a funeral director "who's hilarious," a grandmother, and also the Pink Princess and the Pink Queen. Those last two are the principal characters in a story Bonet wrote for her daughter to let her know she knew Lolita was going to die.

"A nurse asked me if I had talked to Lolita. I asked, 'How do you talk to a child about death?' And (the nurse) said my daughter knew she was dying, but she didn't know if I knew. She told me I had to let her know that I knew, so that she could leave okay. I had never thought about that. So I wrote this little story for her to let her know about death, and that I knew and that it was okay. Pink was her favorite color.

"That was my first therapy session, if you want to know the truth," she laughs gently. "I was crying the whole time, but I wrote that story in about 10 minutes."

That's sort of where Lolita begins. Bonet, wearing a gauzy, creme-colored dress over a black leotard, comes in through the audience. "The play starts that she's dying," she explains. "There's nothing on stage--it's very minimalist, just black boxes--and I talk to Lolita. I'm trying to tell her the story of the Pink Princess, but she falls asleep. I walk downstage and I notice all the people in the audience. And at that point I announce that my daughter is dying. But then I also say I wish it was all over. I want to go away, and escape."

Which she does. The play, which the San Francisco Examiner called "part fairy tale, part jungle fever dream, part visit with a demanding, intelligent and irrepressibly buoyant child," starts with death and then rapidly gets on with life, utilizing song, dance, drums and humor to recreate both mother and daughter in all their complicated humanity. This occurs mostly through flashback and monologue. Bonet says she butted heads with a couple of respected directors who felt she should "work up to the death" scene.

"This is not about death, it's about life. I wanted to start with the death to show it's just a process of life. I want people to realize what's left behind, and what you mourn, what you remember, are those moments you had together. That's what you see in the play: You'll see Lolita in her most precocious moments, questioning sex, questioning prejudices, everything...along with embarrassing moments that did actually happen to me with Lolita. And (hopefully) you'll learn what it is--this child."

Joining Bonet on stage will be percussionist Al Guzman, whose drumming and otherwise silent stage presence are central to Lolita's drama.

Borderlands finishes up its solo performance series (which actually started on February 7 with Colors of Life, a commissioned work developed and performed by unique Tucson poet James Oliver) with Mark Twain: The Wild Humorist of the Pacific Slope, developed and performed by McAvoy Layne. "He's not an actor," says Borderlands' spokeswoman Eva Tessler. "This is all that he does. He is Mark Twain...he even looks like him. It's really amazing."

Though Layne had the same introduction to the quotable notable that most of us did, in school, it wasn't until the winter of 1975 that he truly made ol' S. Clemens' acquaintance. The crucial encounter took place during a ski trip in Lake Tahoe, which landed him snowbound for six days with nothing to do but deplete the supply of firewood and curl up with The Collected Works of Mark Twain. It took a number of years and an expensive white suit, but Layne's delighted audiences since 1989, with more than a thousand performances from Piper's Opera House in Virginia City to Leningrad University in Russia. His uncanny narration captures those treasured boyhood and river adventures, and going on the Overland to Nevada and San Francisco.

"(Eight years ago) I spent $400 on a white suit," he recalls. "Once I had that suit, there was no holding back. And still today, every time I put it on, I have the feeling that something good is going to happen."

Layne comes to town for one performance only on February 28.

Borderlands Theatre presents Good Grief, Lolita! at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, February 21 and 22, at the PCC West Campus Proscenium Theatre, 2202 W. Anklam Road.

McAvoy Layne performs Mark Twain: The Wild Humorist of the Pacific Slope at 8 p.m. Friday, February 28, at the PCC Proscenium Theater, 2202 W. Anklam Road.

Tickets for both productions are $10, available at Antigone Books, Jeff's Classical Records and the PCC West Campus Cashier's Office. Student rush tickets are available 15 minutes prior to curtain. Call 882-7406 for reservations and information. TW

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