Clay McLeod Chapman,
author of Rest Area
(Photo: Heliograph Studio)
Clay McLeod Chapman,
author of Rest Area
(Photo: Heliograph Studio)
Clay McLeod Chapman is a monologist whose Pumpkin Pie Show, a one-man-show-with-friends, was one of the oddball delights of last year's Fringe Festival. Chapman's new book, Rest Area, reads to me like a collection of monologues, but that's probably just because I've seen several of them performed; it's equally a book of short stories, existing in a no man's land between theater and literature. Like a no man's land, this world is dangerous, violent, and unpredictable--but, when the smoke clears, it reveals itself to be quite a beautiful place, as well.

Chapman's style is lyrical, careful, and doggedly idiomatic, his subject matter almost unrelievedly grim. For example, "The Man Corn Triptych" follows in scattered narrative form the progress of a farm family going crazy from hunger--real fun stuff. Here's how it starts: "I'm striking this match and leaving the rest in your hands, Lord. Can't rightly untie myself from the stove now, can I? Not with these knots, no. Not after what I've done. Hog-tying myself to the furnace is a just punishment, in my recipe book." In a handful of sentences, Chapman paints a scene, lends his character a distinct voice, and (almost incidentally) gets us to wondering why someone would have hog-tied himself to a furnace.

Beside his dark imagination, Chapman possesses an actor's intuitive understanding of presentation. His character portraits are sharp and he knows how to give certain information while withholding the rest until the right moment comes to drop it. For example, we understand from the get-go that the protagonist in the title story is a father searching for his lost daughter, but not till the end of the tale does Chapman reveal the full circumstances of the disappearance itself and of the father's perilous physical and emotional condition. Similarly, we gather from the first two sentences of "The Wheels on the Bus Go" that a deaf girl is being molested on the way to school (again, fun stuff!), but it's only in the last two sentences that we fully understand the victim's relationship with her experience.

The problem with Rest Area as a collection is that both the subject matter (in general, desperate people confessing to or preparing for desperate acts) and the style (extended, first-person monologues) lose power when consumed as a whole. Sitting down with Rest Area is a bit like reading straight through one of those Two Dozen Monologues For Actors books, albeit one written by an exceptionally fine monologist obsessed with death and dismemberment.

But this assessment isn't 100% fair; not all the stories are about such dark themes. Indeed, two of my favorites--both of which Chapman performed in The Pumpkin Pie Show--aren't about death at all. One is about a hayseed farm boy who loses his virginity to a pumpkin, the other concerns a sassy ventriloquist's dummy experiencing a vicious erotic envy now that his puppeteer has gotten married. In both, Chapman does what he does in all these pieces: He has totally unexpected characters do totally unexpected (not to mention unacceptable) things in order to create an extended metaphor for something not at all unusual--sexual awakening or jealousy, for example. In the case of all those stories about haunted people ("Off-Season Spirits," "Bladder Companion," "Correspondence of Corpses"), the subject matter is good old-fashioned loneliness and alienation. To make such things beautiful is the stuff of art, whether we're talking theater or literature, and Chapman accomplishes that task gracefully.

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The latest play by Clay Chapman is Broken Boughs at Blue Heron Arts Center.