Venture Theatre at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom St., 923-2766 ext. 21, through Nov. 30
From its opening moments, Robert Christophe's solo performance piece Michigan Impossible is framed as a piece about race, ethnicity and identity: Christophe plays a job interviewer asking Jesse Boles, Christophe's autobiographical stand-in, what he really is. Jesse has checked off four blanks on the form under "race." "Let's just check off 'other,'" the befuddled bureaucrat concludes.
Let's just check off "other" for the piece as well. But whatever it is, it is compelling, moving and immensely entertaining.
Michigan Impossible is indeed about race, ethnicity and identity - Jesse, like Christophe, is Irish, African American, Choctaw and God-knows-what-else.
It is also a memory play, showing us the images and incidents that flash through Jesse's mind as he tries to stay awake driving on the Pennsylvania Turnpike during the blizzard of '96 to attend his grandmother's funeral in Michigan.
And it's filled with storytelling - not just Jesse/Christophe's, but the stories told by his grandmother and grandfather. Between the two of them, they are as likely to invoke the Yoruba deity Ogun or the Choctaw trickster Coyote as Jesus; and they evoke a world in which animals can talk to you, where one really can speak to one's ancestors, and in which the earth itself is an animate being.
But when Michigan Impossible really gets cooking, it becomes less about Jesse, his ancestors or his ancestry, and more about the people he encounters. Early on, Jesse joins a gang in seventh grade, and is assigned the Mission Impossible task of stealing powdered donuts from a delivery truck (we're talking Michigan in the '70s, not the Crips and the Bloods in Los Angeles). Before long, the scene shifts to a Boy Scout wilderness camp, where the gang members have been sent, under threat of suspension, by a liberal do-gooder junior high school guidance counselor.
The Boy Scout camp sequence becomes the central set piece of Michigan Impossible. Jesse virtually disappears from view. And Christophe takes on not only the personae but the points of view of every gang member, and even of the scout troop leader, showing how the events shaped the lives of virtually all of the participants. Issues of race and identity, questions of ancestry, the worlds of Ogun and Coyote, get left behind, and the stage is given over to pure, joyous, theatrical storytelling. Structurally, it's a mess. But every second of it is a pleasure.
I must confess that although I've always liked the relentlessly likable Robert Christophe, I've never been a big fan of his acting: he has always seemed to me to be far too aggressive in his high spirits, too demonstratively emotive in his feelings, almost obsequious in his desperation to be liked on stage. But all these features of his acting are virtues here. He has a stand-up comic's timing, a mime's plasticity and an actor's depth of emotion. Add to that a playwright's way with words and the narrative drive of a skilled storyteller. He had the audience in the palm of his hands from the moment the play began, and he held them there until it was over, more than two hours later.
Christophe shares the stage with composer/musician Fred Goldfine. Ozzie Jones directs.
-Cary M. Mazer