Chicago Sun-Times, Mary Houlihan, Wednesday, June 5th, 2002


Though nearly two dozen characters graced the stage during the latest installment Monday night of Steppenwolf Theatre's Traffic Series, only one actress was in sight. Heather Woodbury, a performance artist known for the Dickensian scope of her monologues, staged a 75-minute segment of her latest "performance novel," the 5 &1/2 hour 'Tale of 2Cities: an American joyride on Multiple Tracks.' "

Many will remember Woodbury for her triumphant introduction to Chicago five years ago, when she performed all ten hours of her first work, 'What Ever: An American Odyssey in Eight Acts.' In that stunning piece, she conjured more than 100 singular characters in a transfixing cross-country odyssey."

She calls 'Tale of 2Cities' a 'story of displacement and replacement.' The work's impetus is the 1957 move of the Brooklyn Dodgers, when New York City lost Ebbets Field and a Mexican American community in Los Angeles was evicted to make room for the new Dodgers stadium. But Woodbury does not stay rigidly within these boundaries. As evidenced by 'Hallucination Map: Brooklangeles' the work's second chapter, Woodbury expertly weaves her characters into a complex, interlocking tale that moves from past to the present and uncovers the diversity of the human experience. Working with just a microphone and a few stools as props, Woodbury launches the entrancing and exhilarating 'Hallucination Map' by portraying two police officers who are interrogating 13-year-old Angela, a suspect in the beating of an elderly Jewish woman on Coney Island. In her motor mouth rant, she creates a visual masterpiece."

Most vivid and heartbreaking(as well as hilarious) are the conversations among three hobos: the philosopher Wentworth, the cowboy Portnoy and the mad Dreyfus. Woodbury etches three startling portraits full of personal quirks and lost dreams."

Other characters in this whirlwind showcase of vocal and physical virtuosity include Jan Weisman, host of a talk -radio show, as well as her clueless fans. Another character, Hannah, the niece of the assaulted woman, e-mails her brother about her Starbucks encounter with an "awesome, pot-smoking Hasidic rabbi."

One of the more touching portraits is of Miriam, a sensitive Anglo woman who befriends Gabriela, a girl whose family is being displaced by the stadium."

Miriam disagrees with her husband, who wants to bring the barrio into the 20th century, and she creates beautiful images ('sagging porches overgrown with pretty roses') that explain why the Mexican-American neighborhood is a cultural experience worth saving.

Woodbury, who grew up in New York(sic) and now lives in Los Angeles' Echo Park neighborhood, uses all of her characters to fill in the puzzle that makes up American society. With her keen observations, she works as a sort of social historian molding gut-wrenching truths and hilarious caricatures into a portrait of the family of man-past and present."

Woodbury was introduced Monday by Ira Glass of NPR's 'This American Life.' Who said he first encountered Heather years ago when he received tapes of all 10 hours of 'What Ever' and 'was stunned by its sheer ambition.' Making this edition of Traffic even more fulfilling, Woodbury returned to the stage after the performance to chat with Glass about her work and take questions from the audience."

After witnessing her brilliant performances and eloquent discussion, one wonders why Woodbury is not nationally known-especially since she's more engaging than other monologists. But perhaps fame would scramble her focus and dilute her impact. Maybe it's best she remain a well-kept secret that explodes on the Chicago theatre scene every few years."

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